Let’s get the things this isn’t out of the way first.
This isn’t Hamilton. The songs in this adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first stage musical are almost as good but the story has none of the grandeur and significance of his famous historical epic. This is absolutely the early work of a man heading for greatness and indeed he did not write the book for this one.
This also isn’t La La Land although I feel that director John M. Chu has borrowed from Damian Chazelle’s enchanting Oscar winner a little. This is another sun-drenched song and dance and young love movie but the romance(s) are not as sweet and the choreography, while impressive in the crowd scenes, is not as delightful or personality driven. Some of the iconography feels very reminiscent of the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone film too and in fact, all of this with the scorching weather, the multiple street scenes and the close knit minority community, means this comes across like a mix between La La Land and Do the Right Thing.
This isn’t Do the Right Thing either though. I thought at one point they were directly referencing Spike Lee’s joint when one of the cast got muck on their new white trainers because of someone else’s carelessness but I’m not sure this is actually the case. There is strong theme of racial inequality in this film as with Lee’s but it has very little fury behind it and none of it hits as hard as I believe they wanted it to. Also, for a film that seems to celebrate a particular district and all of the people in it, it seems odd that so many of the characters seem to want to leave. (They do initially at least; the movie has mixed things to say about realising your dreams.)
I am sorry then but this is not a classic modern musical, there is a random sequence with a couple dancing up the side of an apartment building but it isn’t defying gravity. It also doesn’t feel very real, most of the player’s decisions or fates are based on narrative necessity. The film has been criticised for its lack of appropriate diversity which, while no doubt fair, is a shame for a film that does so much to put certain types of faces on screen in positive roles. I’ll tell you one group who is underrepresented though; people who aren’t beautiful. I know this is true of most movies but in this context it does smack of High School Musical more than Les Mis. The fantasy elements like the aforementioned condo congo also seem a little out of place.
Here’s what this is though. It is utterly charming and infectiously well meaning. In the Heights is delightful and a tremendous amount of fun. None of the arguable shortcomings are down to Lin-Manuel Miranda either who, just as he did with his calling card project, has here written a sequence of lyrically brilliant and socially conscious tunes that are unlike anything that any other composer or musician has produced. There are also quite a number among the cast for whom this will inevitably prove star making. Anthony Ramos, who was also in Hamilton on Broadway/Disney+, is a great lead and he is well supported by Melissa Barreta (even if she is too often Melissa Bare-all-a, this may be unfair but she is massively objectified), Corey Hawkins, Gregory Diaz IV (in the kid role that Ramos took in the 2012 touring version of the show) and a whole array of other talented players. The writer and director are the names at the top of the poster at the moment but this will change I’m sure.
I wasn’t blown away by In the Heights then, largely because I found it all little flimsy. In fact I was worried that if I sneezed the whole thing might have blown away in front of me (even wearing a mask). I did enjoy it though, I think it would be impossible not to. I feel in my heart that it deserves a better review than I’ve been able to give it but I can only say what I thought and in the end I do definitely recommend it.
The Ripley Factor:
My comments about the way the camera fawns over the leading lady’s legs and midriff notwithstanding, there are a lot of strong women in the film. Father figures feature heavily but the community is under a matriarchy and most of the highly achieving characters are women. In this respect it reaches what its title promises.