Now THIS is a movie I know many of you have been waiting for! And with many theatres revving back up in North America, I can’t think of a better reason to get back out to the cinema for a big, wide-screen presentation of IN THE HEIGHTS. I have been waiting, like many film fans, to see Lin Manuel Miranda’s stage play reach the big screen for well over a year now, and even with a few quibbles on its length and sometimes overblown music numbers, this is a charmer that I am sure will be a return to cinemas for many and a powerful reminder of the experience.
The setup is with a young man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) who frames his own personal story in the Washington Heights district of upper New York City. There is what appears to be a tropical setting as he tells his past story to a bunch of kids around him, and it back-tracks to his story and a few characters around him right before a major power blackout will take over the city. There are a few stories running concurrently, mostly about the struggle of low income and wanting to make it bigger, but the key one is between Usnavi and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera in a star-making performance). Some characters like the store owner, who is also the framing device, are trying to just make it in the world and work as hard as they can.
Miranda’s musical paints a very artificial New York that in reality doesn’t exist, and of course that’s the intention as it breaks more into the passion of the people that come in and out of Usnavi’s life. It looks at its other areas outside of Washington Heights as a place to escape, and the way that he shows this is pretty interesting; to just name one example of many, there’s a shot where a character draws a subway line with stops on a fence to suggest that there’s happiness and freedom just a few Subway stops away, and another character comes along and flicks it away in reaction. There’s also a later sequence where a dance on a rooftop takes on another visual meaning, and elegant moments like these alone are worth the price of admission.
The director is the prolific John M. Chu, who has made many movies from a GI JOE sequel to STEP UP 3D (still one of my favourite 3D movies!) and more recently the light-hearted CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Chu is a very visual director who sometimes lets things drag a little too long, and it’s no exception with IN THE HEIGHTS. My biggest issue is, I think, there’s too much singing. In Miranda’s musical world, more is better than less so you REALLY have to be connected to the musical world to love this and I feel some casual musical lovers may be put off by some of it. His subjects are always moving and while I enjoy it, I can also understand some people who may resist the over-the-top feel.
With that said, IN THE HEIGHTS kind of fits into the category of “It Is What It Is” very well and I know audiences who are deeply into musicals and expression of song and dance storytelling are going to love this. This isn’t my personal favourite genre of movies and I can be VERY picky (I walked out of the Miranda-featured MARY POPPINS RETURNS after trying to connect failing) and this one has a light, breezy feel even with some serious subject matter. Sure, it’s very long at 143 minutes and it could have been shortened up a bit, but it still is a movie that charmed me and works on many levels to strongly recommend.
IN THE HEIGHTS is currently playing in available theatres and also available for digital rental on Apple TV, Google Play and the Cineplex Store in Canada. In the US it is playing at available theatres and HBO Max. If you venture out to a cinema, please practice safe moviegoing. Our thanks to Warner PR for sending along an advance copy for review!