Energetic film adaptation of hit musical In The Heights 'encourages spirits to soar'

In The Heights: Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa
Damon Smith

IN THE HEIGHTS (PG, 143 mins) Musical/Drama/Romance. Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco. Director: Jon M Chu

Released: June 18

YOUNG hearts run free a short distance from the 181st Street subway stop in New York City in an energetic film adaptation of the 2005 stage musical with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Shot primarily on location in the culturally rich Manhattan borough of Washington Heights where "you can't walk two blocks without bumping into someone's big plan", In The Heights is a life-affirming celebration of Latin American people and their cultures.

At a time when diversity is a buzzword on Hollywood's glossy lips, director Jon M Chu's frequently exhilarating picture juxtaposes experiences from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico against the spectacular backdrop of the George Washington Bridge.

Hudes' script remains largely faithful to her stage version, reflected in a running time close to two and a half hours, and she deftly navigates themes of isolation, gentrification, racial and income inequality without losing any of the pizzazz of the show-stopping song and dance sequences.

Chu's formative years behind the camera of the Step Up films invigorate breathlessly choreographed set pieces including the splash-perfect synchronisation of hundreds of extras in an outdoor public swimming pool for the song 96,000 and a dreamy gravity-defying duet on the side of a building worthy of Fred Astaire to accompany When The Sun Goes Down.

Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is saving every cent to realise his father's "small dream" of a beachside bar back in the Dominican Republic. He imagines that better life with his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) and the woman who raised him, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz).

However, Usnavi's ambitious plan risks separation from good friends Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), and the object of his affections, aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera).

As the temperature soars heralding a blackout, Usnavi decides where his heart belongs.

Meanwhile, Stanford University student Nina clashes with her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), telling her old man, "You can't keep putting your life's work on my shoulders".

Also, hair salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her girls Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) reluctantly relocate to the Bronx in response to soaring rent prices in the neighbourhood.

In The Heights encourages spirits to soar with a heady combination of Chu's rumbustious direction, Miranda's smartly syncopated lyrics and committed performances anchored by Ramos's luminous star-making turn.

Merediz, a standout Tony-nominated performer from the 2008 Broadway production, repeats the same feat in glorious close-up and shatters fragile hearts with her wistful solo Paciencia Y Fe.

The big screen can barely contain the exuberance of the carnaval del barrio at full blast.

In those moments of symphonic rapture and exultation, Chu and his cast really do hit the heights.

Rating: 4stars

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