Dance Features Live Action Movies

In The Heights

Director – Jon M. Chu – 2021 – US – Cert. – 143m


Boy meets girl even as they yearn to fulfil their dreams outside the confines of New York’s immigrant-populated, urban Washington Heights district – in cinemas from Friday, June 18th

Musicals in the movies present a potentially strange world where people sing rather than talk and dance rather than walk. Set the movie in an urban setting and you have the possibility of crowds of people singing and dancing in unison. All this is a cliché, though, and in order for a movie to profoundly move us, it have to find ways of transcending such material, otherwise it’ll just feel like, we’ve seen it all before.

In The Heights ticks these boxes but sadly, most of the time, fails to transcend the clichés. It has other problems too: elements in the script which aren’t fully thought out and come across as merely confusing. The basic Boy Meets Girl plots are fine as far as they go but they don’t really go very far. The parallel countdown to a blackout looks highly significant, as though it’s going to presage some incredible change in the local community – a successful fight against greedy property developers or uncaring town planning bureaucrats perhaps – but after an incredible build up… the power goes out, people have to manage without electricity and… that’s pretty much it.

The area of Washington Heights is the home to the Puerto Rican immigrant community. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) – named after a boat his father saw emblazoned with the words U.S.Navy – is smitten with the smart and sassy Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who wants to escape the area, move downtown and become a fashion designer. He has A similar aspiration of getting out as he dreams of going back to Puerto Rico and opening up a bar on the beach. It would appear to have come to pass, too, judging by the frame story in which he’s sitting in that bar on that beach telling his story to a bunch of kids, who listen enraptured. But the story doesn’t quite play out the way we hope it will thanks to a little cinematic sleight of hand towards the end.

Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) works as a dispatcher for Kevin’s cab company. Benny has fallen for Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) who is back from college. In her family, she embodies a secret tension. He father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) has build a profitable local cab company up from nothing and wants his daughter to go to college, a considerable expense under the US system. But she felt betrayed there by an institutionally racist education system that favours whites over other groups – and she wants out.

The one really outstanding character in the cast is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the Heights’ local matriarch. Watching her you have the feeling of a woman who’s lived a long life, seen it all and is now in her twilight years. The actress’ presence seems to cast a spell over the screen whenever she appears, upstaging all other cast members. She has a sequence on her own which is completely captivating.

Director John M. Chu, the creative force beyond enjoyable romp Crazy Rich Asians (2018) injects energy, verve and pace, but most of the time doesn’t fix the inherent script problems or add whatever magic is needed to tun this from a workable if uninspired musical into something truly memorable. I say mostly because not only does Olga Merediz buck this trend, but also, towards the end, when you’ve pretty much otherwise given up on the film, it throws in its one truly brilliant scene in which a couple on a balcony dance up a vertical wall face as if it were the ground beneath them. (Perhaps Warner Bros. should be getting Christopher Nolan, who came up with the space-bending Inception (2010), to dream up a musical.)

This is Batman TV series territory, where we know actors are not pulling themselves up a wall with a rope, they’re walking along a flat surface, yet we buy into the illusion and adore it. The version here is that trick pulled off with today’s state-of-the-art digital effects so that we see two characters on the wall and in the same shot the street below them, complete with cars and people moving around. Had the whole movie been as innovative and breathtaking as this one scene and the bigger script issues been ironed out, In The Heights could have been very special indeed. As it stands, it’s satisfactory movie musical fare, but little more.

In The Heights is out in cinemas in the UK from Friday, June 18th.


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