Film review: ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The energetic but overlong In the Heights is a contemporary urban musical with a New York street setting and Hispanic cultural context that evokes West Side Story as well as social and politically themed hip hop extravaganzas like Hamilton.  The film is in fact an adaptation of a successful stage musical from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.

In the Heights focuses on the Latin American and Caribbean community of Washington Heights known as the barrio and four ambitious young residents Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins) who are struggling through life there.  Desperate to pursue long-held dreams – in Usnavi’s case to sell his convenience store or bodega and resurrect his father’s beachside bar in the Dominican Republic – they also find their lives thrown into chaos by the alarming changes in their neighbourhood, where gentrification is causing the Latino culture to evaporate.

Within this storyline, the film weaves a variety of mini-dramas and pertinent political references including the plight of undocumented Central American migrants. It also references the ongoing racism directed at non-white people who attempt to enter the bastions of WASP power, in this case Nina admits to her father (Jimmy Smits) that she’s dropped out of her Ivy League university because of the sneering prejudice she encountered.

This is, however, a musical and enjoyment of the film is largely dependent on people’s taste for the music on offer which is essentially Latin themed pop and hip hop and the occasional ballad.  The Latin numbers are full of heart, energy and swagger but the hip hop tracks are generic and delivered in bland monotone voices. Most disappointing though, there are simply no memorable melodies on the soundtrack and it’s highly unlikely a single tune here will gain anything like the iconic status of the songs from West Side Story.  Also, the film features that scourge of movie musicals – Rex Harrison-style ‘talk singing’.

The elaborately-staged musical set pieces do, however, make impressive use of locations on the sweltering streets of Washington Heights creating a kind of gritty urban flash mob fantasy world.

There’s enough emphasis in the script to give four main characters reasonably rounded personalities although they’re really just variants on the sort of likeable, ambitious but conflicted young people we’ve seen in so many other musicals from West Side Story to Fame.

In the Heights has enraptured some movie goers and its likely that younger audiences and more avid fans of musicals will delight in this film but the for those who normally struggle through musicals, this 143 film will be a long haul.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Musical/ drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Jon M. Chu.

Release date: 24th June 2021.

Running time: 143 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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