In New York's Washington Heights neighbourhood, bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) weighs up returning to the Dominican Republic, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) returns home after her first year in Stanford as her father (Jimmy Smits) shoulders the financial burden of her tuition fees, while romance begins to flourish between Nina and Benny (Corey Hawkins).
Musicals are a major cultural cornerstone in the US, the UK, India, but here in Ireland, they're a little harder for us to reckon with.
Do we struggle with the concept of unbounded joy, perhaps? Is there something in musicals that comes across to us as inherently insincere? Clearly, there's a market for musicals here, and the success of 'Once', the huge box office draw of 'The Greatest Showman', and the booming audiences for venues like the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre speaks to it. Yet, still, we struggle with them in a way that's hard to immediately grasp.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for 'Hamilton' and cropping up in increasingly bigger roles of late, has made his career on crafting brazenly joyful, unrelentingly earnest musicals. There isn't a whiff of cynicism to be found in any of them. Moreover, it's impossible to approach them with that on you or to carry any lingering sense of apprehension to it. From the opening sequence, complete with a massive crowd shot and dance numbers straight out of Old Hollywood, 'In The Heights' is nailing its colours to the mast - this is a big, bold, brash musical and you can either get on board with or leave right now.
As unapologetic as it all is, 'In The Heights' doesn't cover massive social upheavals like 'Les Miserables' or blown-out fantasy like 'Cats'. Instead, the problems that the residents of Washington Heights are completely relatable. Jimmy Smits' car service businessman is struggling to pay for his daughter's tuition in college. She herself has been subjected to discrimination at her college, and feels utterly out of place and questions whether she should return. Bodega owner Usnavi, ostensibly the central character of the story, is weighing up returning to the Dominican Republic as the neighbourhood is slowly becoming gentrified as salon owner Daniela moves her business up to the Bronx as rental costs are proving too much for her. The problems may be low stakes in comparison to other musicals, but the emotions and the setpieces are just as big - if not bigger. Everyone bursts into song at the drop of a hat, the dance numbers and the flights into fantasy - dancing up the side of a building, for example - are vibrant and passionate.
More than anything, 'In The Heights' throws everything at the screen and that kind of eclectic, maximalist energy is in keeping with the people of the neighbourhood. Everyone's living out loud in this world, so it goes that the songs and the music are the same. The big sequences in the movie - like '96,000' or 'Blackout' - anchor together the movie's dramatic moments in a way that makes complete sense in that world. Of course a public pool will suddenly break into synchronised dancing over a lottery ticket, right? How could it not in this fantasy version of New York?
Jon M. Chu, who previously directed rom-com blockbuster 'Crazy Rich Asians' and two concert movies for Justin Bieber, knows how to pull out all of the stops. The bright colours and the brash performances by the cast are mixed together with Chu's confident grasp of scale and style. The story, lifted from the original Broadway musical with a couple of tweaks, sits comfortably in the current cinematic landscape with people eager to forget their woes and revel in the escapism of it all.
'In The Heights' won't convert anyone over to musicals. It's not its intention. It's a heart-on-your-sleeve, love-it-or-hate-it, all-or-nothing kind of musical. With that in mind, it succeeds as a triumphant spectacle. It's every bit as heartwarming and sincere as you'd expect, and the measure of its power is that even if you're no fan of musicals, you can at least appreciate how much effort it's putting in.