In the Heights review – Lin-Manuel Miranda musical loaded with Sunny-D optimism

There’s no space for bad feelings as Miranda’s exuberant and innocent Broadway hit transfers to the screen

There’s a sentimental kind of exuberance and more than two solid hours of dancing in the streets in this boisterous, if earnest, movie-musical version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit from 2008. (Famously, it was while taking a well-earned holiday after this stage success that Miranda chanced upon Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton – and the rest is showbiz history.)

It is a sweet-natured film with Sunny-D optimism and a no-place-like-home ethic; in a pleasant way, it felt like a feature-length version of that moment in Fame when all the kids start dancing and singing around the yellow cab outside New York’s High School of Performing Arts. You might also compare it to West Side Story, soon to be revived by Steven Spielberg. But this is a world of all jets and no sharks, or all sharks and no jets. There is no serious conflict here, and the quarrels, family rows and lovers’ tiffs disappear very quickly.

The scene is the Washington Heights district of Manhattan, a vibrant hub of Latin American communities. A hardworking, romantic young guy called Usnavi runs a bodega, a corner store, with his cheeky cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz) and dreams of one day making it home to the Dominican Republic to open a beachside bar. On stage this was Miranda’s part; now it is played with likable openness by Anthony Ramos, with Miranda taking a cameo as someone selling cold drinks from a cart. Bashful Usnavi is in love with smart, beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barerra) who works in a nearby nail salon, but with ambitions to be a fashion designer. Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) returns to the neighbourhood from her studies at Stanford to a hero’s welcome but she’s secretly eaten up with sadness: she wants to drop out, sick of racism in the student body, and worried about her dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits) going broke to pay her tuition. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend Benny (Corey Hawkins) has obviously still got a thing for her.

The summer heat climbs in parallel with the emotional temperature, and the rumours are that someone has won big with a lottery ticket bought in Usnavi’s store; it all climaxes in a calamitous power cut (inspired by a notorious Washington Heights blackout in 1999) which kills all the fridges and the A/Cs but not the nonstop party atmosphere, and the community is kept grounded by a wise matriarchal figure of “Abuela” (ie “Grandma”) Claudia, played by Olga Merediz. There are loads of enjoyable setpieces, high-energy ensemble scenes and warbling Broadway showtunes with a spoonful of rap: I loved the goofy spectacular at the outdoor swimming pool (in-pool dancing is always entertaining) and Ramos has an open, pleasant, intelligent face. In a way, he’s an actor in search of a more demanding role, and almost everyone here (except Merediz and Smits) looks like players in a very talented youth theatre company.

There’s plenty of vibrancy and winning charm but a persistent and weird lack of grownup plausibility. Of course, that’s part of what a musical is, but there is no place for grit in this oyster. Nina, for example, talks about the ugly incident that soured her experience of Stanford: her roommate misplaced an expensive necklace and this young woman’s wealthy parents insisted on literally searching Nina, and when this necklace was simply found in the roommate’s bag, not only did Nina get no apology, but she found herself stammering out an apology herself – an intense humiliation. But this all happens off-camera. In the Heights themselves, bad feelings evaporate in the film’s greenhouse-controlled atmosphere of bubbling excitement. There is certainly no racial tension, unless you count the white removals guy who calls Vanessa’s colleague “ma’am” and is sharply told that this should be “señorita”.

It’s impossible to object to In the Heights with its almost childlike innocence. Ramos is very good and it is great to see Stephanie Beatriz (from TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Dascha Polanco (from Orange Is the New Black) round out the supporting cast. But this is a pretty quaint image of street life, whose unrealities probably worked better on stage.

• In the Heights is released on 11 June in the US, 18 June in the UK and 24 June in Australia.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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