Cert – PG, Run-time – 2 hours 23 minutes, Director – Jon M. Chu
In the middle of a heatwave a group of hardworking dreamers find themselves longing from escape from their Washington Heights neighbourhood, however find it hard to leave their close community.
“Our neighbours started packing up and picking up, and ever since the rent’s went up. It’s gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough”. It’s the loop that the residents of Washington Heights appear to have been stuck in for years. Each with their own dreams of escape, but stuck to the same block because of money and, the bigger factor in play, the connection they have with their neighbours. They keep each other going while their dreams appear to be placed on a prominent backburner. Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the core focus of the film, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. He idolises going back to his homeland to rebuild and run his late father’s bar – El Sueñito, little dream. He believes the best days of his life, all eight years, were spent there until moving to the US where he’s been chasing return; and hopeful fashion designer and beauty salon worker Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), ever since.
Usnavi finds his longing to return to his home island heightened even more by the summer heat. A strong heatwave is occurring and it seems to strengthen everyone’s passions. Salon ladies Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) are moving to the Bronx, after other recent shop closures. Preventing full closure, taxi company owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) has sold part of his business in order to fund his divided daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace), through college. Meanwhile his employee Benny (Corey Hawkins) is trying to achieve bigger career heights, while watching all his friends and family struggle. And how do they all release their stresses and passions? Through rap and song! Originally a Tony award winning stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who appears in the small, yet scene-stealingly joyous, role of a Piragua seller – stay to the end of the credits!) there’s plenty of grin-inducing numbers throughout.
The opening number itself leaves you speechless. Not just with the introductions and build-up that it creates but the passion and power that comes across in the performances. The scale of the increasing dance number that culminates in the towering block letters of the title appearing on screen is grand and is only out done later in the film. While you do wish that there could be less cuts during big scale dance numbers, the crowds of bodies rapidly moving in unison is certainly impressive however you do wish that some shots of them had more space to breathe to add impact instead of just showing it from a different area or angle. Yet, many of the numbers are loud, bold and joyous. One particular swimming pool setting is used to colourful effect for even more of an energetic visual treat. Proclaiming summer joy from the screen and into the eyes and ears of the audience. By the last beat of the big finale you can truly feel one final heart pound caused by the electrifying energy that runs throughout the film.
It’s testament that the joy and excitement that such numbers are able to conjure up is matched by the emotion that the same musical outpourings are also able to create. A lot of this is down to the performances as restrained characters cry out in song. Abuela Claudia (original Broadway actress Olga Merediz) is very much the emotional core of the film, connecting the characters as a caring grandmother figure. As she finishes proclaiming about her childhood and her difficulties growing up and living in America it’s hard to fight the urge not to stand up and applaud. Meanwhile other songs simply have so much power in the delivery or even simply the execution and choreography that you become emotional because of the force they have. Some songs might push the run-time a bit, but for the most part they all work, and the nearly two and a half hour course of the piece is rarely felt.
Outside of the songs there are plenty of wonderful character exchanges to keep your interest. This is a film about the relationships of the community that has resided on this block for so many years. They’ve supported each other and become a family (this may be the big-screen alternative for those not wishing to see Fast And Furious 9 this summer). The connection comes across in the efforts of the ensemble cast. Everyone is eager to leave but resisting the urge in order to not leave their friends and the people they can identify with in a proud largely Latinx community. These exchanges are what help make the film the proud slice of entertainment that it is. Allowing the musical moments to burst open and flourish in the glare of the summer sun that oversees the heatwave that causes many elements of the lives that we’re witnessing to boil over. Whether for better or worse. For the viewer it’s for the better. Boosting their connection with the array of entertaining characters and enhancing the overall impact of their often ecstatic, enthusing musical celebrations.
While the dance sequences might occasionally have a few too many cuts it’s still easy to enjoy the celebratory summer musical numbers burst out by the infectiously enjoyable ensemble of In The Heights, just about gotten away with, run-time.