Released: 24th June
Seen: 14th June (Advance Screening)
In recent years, musicals have been… well, bad. Music was offensive to many communities, The Prom was brought down by one truly bad performance and a lack of style while Cats… well, I try not to discuss war crimes on this blog so let’s just not talk about Cats anymore. For a while now it’s felt like we might never have another great musical outside of animation, and even those are slowly dying since musical animated films appear to be happening less and less often. Thank goodness we now have In The Heights to remind everyone just how great a musical can be, I hope this is the start of a glorious resurgence for this little genre.
In The Heights, based on the Broadway smash of the same name, takes place in Washington Heights and follows the life of Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos). Usnavi owns the local bodega and from there he can see all the goings on in his neighbourhood and knows everyone in the block. Unfortunately, the block is slowly changing thanks to gentrification, pushing the small community of immigrants out of their homes and into neighbouring cities where they won’t be together. As we spend more and more time in the heights, we slowly learn about the lives of those who grew up in this little block, their hopes, their dreams and just what makes this little block its own unique kind of family.
It feels almost silly to try and explain why In The Heights is so good because that would mean I’d have to start describing the entire movie, from the perfectly cut shots that line up to the beat of the opening number and then keep describing every single scene until the final post-credits joke that had me leaving the cinema with a smile on my face. Every single minute of In The Heights is pure brilliance on every level, it’s so good that trying to explain why it’s good is just too hard. It’s good because it’s good, that’s about all there is to say… and yet, I’ll keep going because a three paragraph review isn’t that interesting.
Bless John M Chu for making a musical that’s not ashamed about being a musical. The embrace of stylism and leaping back and forth between the various kinds of lavish brightly coloured musical numbers is a glorious sight to behold. Every song has its own visual language, from the gigantic group dance number joy of the opening number or 96,000 to the metaphorical brilliance of Paciencia y Fe (the best number in the movie) and even borrowing from legends like Fred Astaire and dancing on the walls during When The Sun Goes Down. It’s all so wonderfully done with a visual flair you can only pull off in a movie musical.
Every single number is a joy not only because of the visuals but because this cast is something else. Olga Merediz reprises her role from Broadway as “Abuela” Claudia, who performs Paciencia y Fe and if this woman isn’t the absolute heart of In The Heights then no one is. Melissa Berrara as Vanessa is a constant shining light who keeps your full attention whenever she opens her mouth. Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco pop up as a trio of salon workers who act almost like muses and provide so much comic relief that it’s incredible. Hell, their number No Me Diga was the second it hit me that In The Heights was going all in on the stylism and I loved it.
The undeniable superstar of In The Heights, and it’s not even a contest, is Anthony Ramos who delivers a performance that’s nothing short of star making. This is the performance we will all point to in about 20 years when we want to know the moment that Ramos turned into a superstar. Every single frame with him in it is iconic, he owns the screen and makes it look like he’s barely trying. The last time I saw a leading man performance this good was when Henry Golding turned up in Crazy Rich Asians and stole our hearts (Where the hell is John M Chu finding these leading men?). Ramos gives a performance that goes beyond your normal triple threat, he manages to show off all the skills he has and he’s equally good at all of them.
Every minute of In The Heights just feels like it’s showing us what a movie musical can be. It embraces the material and the format to present this hyper colourful dreamlike experience that lights up every single inch of the frame. I know that America has this on streaming already but I implore you to see this film on the biggest screen you possibly can because it’s a spectacle that deserves to be seen in its ideal format. It’s a film about a community that is best viewed with a community around you just enjoying the toe tapping delight that’s on screen.
So, yeah, In The Heights is a musical phenomenon that begs to be seen and enjoyed by all. It’s funny and heartbreaking, realistic and stylised, emotionally heartbreaking and light as a feather. It somehow pulls off doing a little bit of everything in a way that’s actually surprising to me. Don’t be shocked when this film is my favourite film of the year because it set the bar so high that it’s going to take something truly magical to top it and I just don’t know if such a film exists.