Washington Heights is the densely populated Manhattan melting pot that has played home to successive diasporas, sweatshops, a crack epidemic and, in recent years, luxury rezoned developments. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, however, it’s an impossibly rich and romantic seam, a fiercely Latino, joyfully diverse, always sunny postal code, located perhaps a block or two over from Big Bird’s nest and Sesame Street’s America.
Bookended by smiling children and idyllic scenes from a Caribbean beach, In the Heights concerns Usnavi (the charming triple-threat Anthony Ramos), a bodega operator who hopes to follow his dream – or “sueñito” – all the way to the Dominican Republic, where he wishes to buy the bar once owned by his father.
Various musical numbers play out the community spirit of the “heights”, a spot where Claudia (Olga Merediz), is auntie or “abuela” to all. She’s not alone. Everyone from the taxi entrepreneur Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), his loyal employee Benny (Corey Hawkins), and the salon ladies – Daniela, Carla, and Cuca – form a makeshift neighbourhood family.
The tentacles of gentrification have, alas, taken hold. Half the taxi business has been sold to make way for an organic dry cleaners. On the way out – or is she? – is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a budding fashion designer and the object of Usnavi’s affections. On the way in – or is she? – is Nina (Leslie Grace), a returning Stanford law student and the object of Benny’s affections.
In the Heights was a Tony-winning, hip-hop hit for Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda before the latter musical made him a global star. Unlike his more famous creation, there is no need for anyone to sing Say No to This in this gleamingly wholesome movie.
Save for a subplot concerning Usnavi’s undocumented cousin Sonny (breakout star Gregory Diaz IV), there’s no trace of racial profiling or police brutality. The slicked-back hair – let alone the stylised switchblades – of West Side Story would likely cause the denizens of these fictionalised, Disneyfied Heights to faint.
Whither the urban grit? There’s plenty of razzle dazzle here but little that passes for oomph.
Working with cinematographer Alice Brooks, Jon M Chu – who directed the first two underrated Step Up sequels before scoring a monster hit with Crazy Rich Asians – crafts a genuine cinematic experience defined by innovative shots and angles. Diverse casting – in terms of age, shape and ethnicity – adds to the spectacle. “They’re kicking out all the dreamers,” laments Sonny. Not in this relentlessly upbeat picture.