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MOVIES: In the Heights - Review

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In the Heights is the latest blockbuster release from Warner Brothers, but unlike past entries that the studio have given us this year it’s an instant winner. Feeling like the work of a passion project from the Hamilton team under the guidance of Jon M. Chu, director of the brilliant Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a pure delight – with plenty of heart and soul, and feels more alive than most musicals have done since John Carney’s unexpected wonder that was Sing Street, and oh, go on, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (which wasn’t anywhere near as good).

Taking place around a small block in Washington Heights, New York, In the Heights introduces us to a lively, well-developed cast of characters that are straight from the musical playbook – the love of musicals is felt heavily here and the passion of the cast and the film’s creators is shown through this vibrant film. It’s bursting full of life – it’s the rare movie that feels as alive as In the Heights, there’s always something going on in every scene and the attention to detail is excellent. Be it the Chicago poster that hangs in the background or the little details of the background characters watching the main cast sing their hearts out, In the Heights has it all – the dance sequences are wonderfully choreographed and even the costume design is impeccable, whatever the characters are wearing fits their unique sense of style and provides extra depth without the script having to tell you anything. From the first song you get a clear sense as to who every character is, their motivations and their purposes – In the Heights wastes no time in getting started.

The performances are mostly pretty good in a stirring ensemble. The chemistry between Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera is off-the-charts good, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s obligatory cameo doesn’t feel overbearing and Leslie Grace is fantastic. There are long stretches of the film that requires the audience to hold their suspense of disbelief as there are with any musical, especially in some gravity-defying set-pieces, but In the Heights will have you so immersed in the world that it does not matter in the moment – it’s a dazzling spectacle of the highest order.

If there is one weakness it’s the obligatory framing device doesn’t quite work, but it provides a neat backdrop to the film itself as it unfolds. You see the characters evolving before your eyes – the emotional moments are hard hitting and perfectly timed, acting as a critique to the ever-expanding nature of capitalism within the studio set-up - the city that surrounds the characters is increasingly gentrified and lacks a heart and soul, rarely feeling as lifeless as the block they live in - which in its own right is under threat from becoming the latest home to hipsters. The film still works as a love-letter to the dreamers and anyone who has not only tried to accomplish their dreams, but also felt burnt out by the threat of not accomplishing them. Every character arc feels personal, every story matters – In the Heights is a passion project of the kind that we just don’t get anymore. Who’d have thought this would be from the same director who has made not one, but two Justin Bieber films?

There have been movies that have aired on the big screen at the cinema since they reopened in the wake of the lockdown in the United Kingdom – we’re now entering the third week of reopening - but In the Heights feels like the first real crowd-pleaser designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. We’ve had horror, we’ve had a Disney villain origin story – we’ve seen Godzilla go head-to-head with Kong but this feels like a smash hit in the making, and it almost certainly will be up there with your favourite musicals in the past decade. Certainly my favourite since Sing Street.

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