Overwhelming and uplifting at the same time, the gloriously vibrant In the Heights almost convinces you you’re back inside an IMAX theatre, even if you’re watching it on your iPhone. After simultaneously capturing the cultural imagination and tanking at the global box office, the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ hit Broadway musical arrives on Indian pay-per-view platforms this week.
A story about gentrification told with a spirit of gentle rebellion, In the Heights is a joyous ode to both movies and the physical act of going to watch them. In one scene, two characters, madly in love, leap off the ground and dance on the side of a New York City building. The sequence wasn’t staged like this in the Broadway musical, I hear, but is one of director Jon M Chu’s creative overhauls.
Watch the In the Heights trailer here:
In many ways, the director’s career has taken off much like the characters Benny and Nina in that song sequence. Chu, who cultivated an unremarkable but unmistakably successful career as a journeyman Hollywood director, had a bit of an ‘Anubhav Sinha moment’ after the critical and commercial failure of his Jem and the Holograms movie. In the Heights is more in line with the glossy, good-natured Crazy Rich Asians than the more forgettable films with which Chu previously associated himself; films that even he admitted in an interview that ‘anybody could have made’.
Set in the cultural melting-pot of the Washington Heights neighbourhood of NYC, the movie revolves around a group of young adults — mostly first generation Latinx immigrants — who’re discovering their identities as their community braces itself for cultural erasure. Nina Rosario can’t bring herself to tell her dad that she has dropped out of college because their funds ran out; Usnavi de la Vega dreams of one day returning to the Dominican Republic, to take over his late father’s business. He has a crush on Vanessa, who wants to become a fashion designer, but is wracked with self-doubt mostly stemming from the community from which she comes.
Miranda, who played Usnavi on Broadway, appears in a cameo as the piragua guy (and gets a number all to himself), and Olga Merediz delivers perhaps the film’s most moving performance as Abuela Claudia, a matriarchal figure to the entire neighbourhood, who took Usnavi in after his parents perished. Abuela Claudia in her number — Paciencia y Fe — taps into the generational sadness that runs through In the Heights, almost as a counter-balance to the optimistic spirit that Chu injects into the rest of the story — it’s the cinematic equivalent of a chef squeezing in some lemon juice to enhance the flavour profile of a savoury dish.
It should not come as a surprise that one supporting character in In the Heights, a film about hope, is an actual Dreamer. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny is an undocumented immigrant, who learns that his status prohibits him from applying to college, or leaving the country.
The hardships of others compel characters in In the Heights to do better; it inspires kindness in them, and a desire to help those who look and sound like them. There’s a real sense of camaraderie on display here, but some sections of the audience have felt let down by the film’s lack of dark-skinned characters. To an outsider’s eye — mine — the nuances of representation are utterly lost. All I saw was a marginalised group getting its long-overdue moment in the spotlight. But everyone’s opinion is (and should be) heard. I’d imagine the Northeastern community in India would have similar misgivings about being grouped together for the convenience of easily-hassled Hindi-speaking audiences.
But In the Heights is proof that while hyper-local hiring might sound like the politically correct path to take, it is rendered meaningless if the final film ends up being as enjoyable as this. Chu, the son of Asian immigrants, is able to capture the spirit of a culture far removed from his own by tapping into universal humanity. Who knows if a Latinx filmmaker would’ve been a better fit for the material, but as things stand, In the Heights is yet another fine addition to this new wave of Hollywood musicals.
In the Heights
Director – Jon M Chu
Cast – Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Berrera, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Lin-Manuel Miranda
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar
In the Heights is available to stream in India on Apple TV, BookMyShow Stream, Google Play Movies, and YouTube Movies