In the Heights | A Sun-Drenched, Charming Tale Of Dreams, Community And Home
In the Heights is directed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu and is an adaptation of the Broadway musical written by Quaira Alegria Hudes – with music, lyrics and concept created by Lin Manuel Miranda – you know, the guy behind that tiny Broadway show called Hamilton.
Our story takes places in the Manhattan borough of Washington Heights – a predominantly Latinx neighbourhood. Our protagonist is convenience store owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of fulfilling his deceased father’s Suenito or “little dream” of opening his own beach side bar in his place of birth; The Dominican Republic. We watch as Usnavi wrestles with the choice of chasing his fathers dream or staying in the community which raised and embraced him with open arms.
I came out of In the Heights beaming with joy. It’s one of those perfect summery, all-singing, all-dancing, big screen movies that get your hips swaying, your toes tapping and your teeth grinning. Most importantly it’s a film, that justifies seeing it on the biggest screen possible – don’t deprive yourself of the treat of seeing it at a cinema. It’s a film that is so easy on the eyes – not just because of its ridiculously gorgeous cast, but thanks to the dazzlingly inventive set pieces, breathtaking choreography, vibrant art direction and Jon M. Chu’s dynamic camerawork. It’s alive with such kinetic energy and utterly infectious music.
The comparisons to West Side Story seemed inevitable – which incidentally is getting a Steven Spielberg reimagining later this year. But that comparison is a very generalised one, In the Heights feels refreshingly different to all other movie-musicals. There’s an intoxicating mix of old and new. Every number is laced with a deliciously Latin flavour. There are classic emotionally charged ballads that will make your heart swoon but there’s also elements of salsa, hip-hop, merengue and Lin Manuel Miranda’s now-recognisable, spoken-word, recitative rap sensibilities. Side note for all Hamilton fans keep your ears open for a familiar musical easter egg. There’s a real emphasis on “the little details” on display in this film which makes it feel like an authentic celebration of all things Latinx. One can’t help but smile at the thought of all the positive ramifications a film like this will have on the underrepresented Hispanic communities around the world.
The cast are all superb. Anthony Ramos lights up the screen with his boyish good looks and cheeky smile as Usnavi. He’s backed up by the fiery Mellissa Barrera who plays aspiring fashion designer and love interest Vanessa. Corey Hawkins plays Usnavi’s pal Benny who yearns for old flame Nina (Leslie Grace), who is going through her own identity crisis. She’s back from Stamford College but has felt ostracised and isolated as a minority among her predominantly White classmates. Benny and Nina share one of the standout set pieces a they perform a duet of the When the Sun Goes Down whilst dancing along the side of a Manhattan building.
But the MVP is without-a-doubt Olga Merediz who reprises the same role she played on Broadway as the Washington Heights matriarch Abuela Claudia. She is the heart of the community and of the film itself. Merediz delivers a dignified performance that’s sure to have Oscar-pundits on their radar for a best supporting actress nomination. She reduced me to tears during her rendition of Paciencia y Fe – it’s soul-touchingly obvious why they brought her back for the movie.
When looking for criticisms there is so much love radiating from this film that it’s easy to let the knit-picky stuff slide. Such as there is a lot of very noticeable product placement – In the Heights is brought to you by Coca Cola, Beats and Moët Champagne.
There’s also some clunky shots during one of the standout songs 96,000. The sequence involves a stunning on-location swimming pool set piece, however there was clearly some green screen footage of Anthony Ramos inserted after shooting. It’s a rather sore-thumb addition in otherwise flawless number.
But where In the Heights truly struggles is with character conflict and resolution – or the lack thereof. Most of the conflict is internal, many of the characters are wrestling with the decision of staying or leaving. Asking themselves where do I belong? But the rest of the time it’s all sunshine, love and joy. Even the blackout is a cause for celebration instead of panic. There isn’t much more than surface-level struggles. Without conflict there’s no real drama. There are brief moments where the story hints are some bigger issues like the gentrification of the neighbourhood but never actualy dives in the deep end. And the only mention of racial tension comes from Nina’s experiences at university – but that’s all it is; mentioned. We never actually witness it happen to her.
And while the film ends on an uplifting note I couldn’t help but feel too many of the characters arcs were left unresolved. Upon leaving the theatre I found myself asking a lot of questions; What did Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) do after selling the business? Did Vanessa’s fashion dreams take off? How does Nina cope back at Stamford? And what’s Benny doing with himself now? The answers all remain ambiguous so there is a lack closure.
In the Heights is a sun-drenched and charming tale of dreams, community and home. Despite a slightly long runtime and a lack of character conflict/resolution, it more than makes up for those issues with its phenomenal cast, luscious musical set pieces and fabulous choreography. After a year deprived of social dancing, this is the perfect pick-me-up summery film that’ll make you thirsty to get back on a dance floor.
In the Heights is released in U.K. cinemas June 18th and is available in other regions on HBO Max.
U2 Songs of Surrender Review | Dreaming Old Songs Up Again
Hot on the heels of becoming “Rock’s Hottest Ticket” in 1987, U2 embarked on the “LoveTown Tour,” which was a quasi-extension of their 1987 “Joshua Tree Tour” that brought their Grammy-winning album, The Joshua Tree, across the US and Europe. This new leg, which visited the countries down under and far East that the band wouldn’t revisit for many years (about 30 years in the case of the latter), brought the hits pre-Joshua Tree along with some songs from their new album Rattle and Hum. The shows were great — there are plenty of bootlegs out there — but there was one specific show that many U2 fans know. That’s the December 30, 1989 show at the Point Depot in Dublin when Bono delivered his “dream it all up again” speech.
Now, this speech wasn’t just another one of Bono’s famous hyperbolic word soups — like when he claimed U2 was re-applying for the position of the best rock band during the promotional tour for All That You Can’t Leave Behind after their so-so Pop album — but a promise to reinvent themselves. After all, U2’s music in 1987 was so fixated on America; taking influence from the greats like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc., and for as great as “Where the Streets Have No Name” is, U2 needed to mix it up. And boy, did Achtung Baby do that. This reinvention saw U2 go as far as satirizing themselves and other rock stars on their “ZooTV Tour” in 1992 and ‘93, and you could make the case that Achtung Baby is not just the best album the band has made, but the most crucial album they’ve made.
Over 30 years later, U2 is once again reinventing itself. They’ve had quite the roller coaster the past few years, releasing albums (some free and some not), touring the world with their new albums while also celebrating an old one and Bono finally wrote an autobiography. Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is the ultimate guide to the inner workings of Bono and the most vulnerable autobiography to come from a rockstar. U2 fans have already got a good amount of Bono’s story with Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (and their support tours that utilized a giant LED screen to bring a spectacle-filled show to life), and readers of the book probably caught onto the fact that each chapter was named after a song of U2’s catalog. U2 decided to rework 40 songs from their old catalog with Songs of Surrender, the supposed final entry in the Songs of series (although here’s hoping Songs of Ascent eventually comes out of the shadows). While U2 fans are probably sick of the reflective, melancholic U2 that has dominated much of the band’s work over the past decade, give Songs of Surrender a chance. For many artists, a compilation of their old hits reworked would seem like a lazy excuse to put out an album and make some cash, but if there’s one thing that U2 has taught us, it’s that they don’t operate like that — and Songs of Surrender is a predominantly successful attempt at once again dreaming it up again.
Before even starting the album, you’re probably asking yourself: How can there possibly be 40 tracks — isn’t that too much U2? Simply put, no. With 14 studio albums, there is such a wide variety of songs to explore. And almost every album is represented (though some love for No Line on the Horizon would’ve been appreciated). The word reworking, or reimagining if you’d prefer, is crucial to understanding this album. You have to remember, U2 began releasing music in 1980 and they sounded like a band trying to do The Clash or Joy Division. Their early music from Boy and October is great, but “A Day Without Me” or “Stories for Boys” sound nothing like “Red Flag Day” or “Song for Someone.” Taking a punk song and making it into a somber lullaby, as U2 does with “Stories for Boys,” or how they strip down arena-rockers like “Out of Control” and “I Will Follow” from the same album is something to behold. The Edge’s piano playing throughout the album — particularly on “Stories for Boys” and “If God Will Send His Angels” — is straight out of Joe Hisaishi’s scores for Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away and the acoustic guitar sounds like their music from Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.
Granted, not every song gets a wild reinvention. “Every Breaking Wave,” outside of the drop in key by a full step that U2 has been doing since the European leg of the “iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour,” is pretty similar to the rendition found on the Songs of Innocence bonus disc from the “Acoustic Sessions” or the live rendition from the 2018 Abbey Road show. Even Bono’s cadence on the chorus’ “off our feet knows that we’re in love with defeat” lines harken back to recent live performances of the song.
“Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is another song that’s hard to reinvent considering the fact that it has been a go-to for any Bono and The Edge solo appearances. And this rendition — for as good as Bono’s voice is on it — is quite similar to any promo appearance where they played this since the song’s release. “Song for Someone” is another song that’s really hard to reinvent due to its musical structure. Luckily, it’s the last notable song that’s not drastically different from its original counterpart. To give it some credit, it does combine the piano-driven “Acoustic Sessions” sound and an acoustic guitar. Other than that, it’s very similar to the original song. It’s a bit disappointing considering you could’ve used that spot on a different song — but more on that later.
On the flip side of that coin, some songs are drastically different. I already mentioned “Stories for Boys,” but another early song, “Two Hearts Beat as One,” a standout from War, trades one of Adam Clayton’s signature thumping bass lines for a piano riff that mimics it with a Pop-era disco beat in the background. The Edge hasn’t gotten a lead vocal part in a while, that changes with this rendition of “Two Hearts.” He’s got a beautiful voice — just listen to his part in “Stuck in a Moment” or his lead vocals on “Van Dieman’s Land” — and it’s nice to give him the spotlight.
“Miracle Drug” is almost unrecognizable. Driven by a tribal drum beat, it’s far more meditative than the original song and it took until the chorus for me to recognize the song. Ditto for another song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” — one of Bono’s best songs about his father.
When looking over the tracklist, eager to dig in — thank you to Full Stop Management for sending the album early — one of the tracks I was most curious about was “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Often compared to U2’s sound of the 80s — I’ve heard this comparison a lot — I really didn’t know how you translate this slow-burn song that builds to a crashing crescendo into a stripped-down arrangement. A little acoustic guitar goes a long way, and this rendition of the song, while not packing quite the same punch as the live performances in 2017 did, brings a new flavor to a song that I never thought could be changed.
Coming into listening to the album, I was worried that “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” — an arena rocker much like how “The Little Things” rocks stadiums — would just sound like the “Acoustic Sessions” version. But instead, it sounds like Imagine Dragons’ “Believer.” I’m not sure if the drastic lyric change in the chorus was completely necessary, or more important works, but the verses sound phenomenal.
Similarly, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is given a far more ambient rendition than anything U2 fans have heard (unless you’ve gone to one of Bono’s “Stories of Surrender” shows)— even closely resembling Phoebe Bridgers’ ending of “Scott Street” in the middle eight.
I’m also a sucker for “With or Without You,” and I will listen to any rendition and appreciate it. The Songs of Surrender version begins with a repeated guitar note — like the delayed note at the beginning of The Joshua Tree‘s version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For — features some of Bono’s finest work on the album. The monotone, almost spoken-word vocals bring out a new side to this classic song. His aged voice gives the song new meaning. I have listened to plenty of live renditions from all tours of this song, and as a U2 nerd, I appreciate Bono finishing his “aways” in the “give yourself away” lines. The way he begins escalating his voice in the chorus brings me back to one of the Chicago shows in 1987 where Bono went all out in the same part of the song. Stellar stuff, though I could’ve gone for a “Shine Like Stars” refrain to close it out.
And that’s another interesting aspect of Songs of Surrender: the snippets, or lack thereof. U2 fans know the “Here Us Coming” or “Invisible” refrains at the end of most live renditions of “One” or Bono’s habit of channeling David Bowie or Paul Simon in the latter half of live renditions of “Bad,” and those are nonexistent here. Totally understandable — Why would you snippet other artists on a studio track? — but I will admit it’s odd not hearing “Heroes” at the tail end of “Bad” or no falsetto “woo-hoo’s” at the end of “One,” but that’s just the U2 fan in me and I have live albums to quench that thirst.
“The Fly” gets a similar treatment as “Two Hearts” — replacing the signature wah-wah riff is the picking of a two-note riff (basically playing the original riff sans the effects pedal) but still letting Clayton groove to the reggae beat with his bass makes for a better version of the song than the intermission version played on the “iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour.” It helps that the song is played in a lower key right in Bono’s current vocal range, which in turn likely also helps The Edge with his falsetto vocal harmony. The signature guitar solo is still there to a degree, just replaced with an acoustic guitar riff that can’t help but make you think of Paul McCartney’s “Long Tailed Winter Bird.”
There are a few duds, but they’re relatively few and far between. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” already has such a template lined up for how to strip that song back — similar to “Stuck in a Moment” and “Every Breaking Wave” — so props for making up a new arrangement, but sometimes if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (an expression I’ve found myself using a lot lately). The version from Songs of Surrender doesn’t come alive until the choruses.
The rendition of “Ordinary Love” is a bit redundant, if nothing else, purely because of its similarity to the version from Jimmy Fallon’s premiere of The Tonight Show or the rooftop performance from a few years back on a Brazilian news channel. The song’s one of the band’s best in recent years, it just goes unscathed both lyrically and musically. By that standard, I probably have to call out “Song for Somone,” though I really adore that song. “Get Out of Your Own Way” falls apart rather quickly in its latter half. Again, there’s a blueprint for stripping this one down, but the drastic shift in the lyrics, barely cramming them into the space given, really bogs the song down somewhat and sounds like those times when Bono forgets words on stage, cramming in words into the stanzas of the song — except it’s a full song of that. That said, Bono and The Edge sound great in the choruses. I’ve also never been a big fan of any version of “Vertigo” post the “Vertigo Tour” — the chorus has really lacked punch since they got rid of the backing vocals in the choruses to back up the “hola’s” and “dónde está’s” — but this version sounds better than the times Bono and The Edge have soloed this song on appearances on Ellen and such with its utilization and reliance on orchestral instruments (once again sounding like a song from their Turn Off the Dark soundtrack).
As a U2 fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t name some songs that are ripe for a reinvention. “So Cruel,” off Achtung Baby, has hardly been acknowledged since the “ZooTV Tour” — even then, it was played a handful of times and never in full — which will finally change at the MSG Sphere this year. Bono played a fantastic version for the From the Sky Down documentary, but it’d be really cool to hear Bono, now over a decade removed from that performance, sing that song — especially with that falsetto-driven chorus. “A Sort of Homecoming” was brushed off in 2017 for the “Joshua Tree Tour,” and hearing a new version would’ve been cool since they designed an electronic backing track for those performances. “God Part II” really needs to make its way back into U2 canon. The song’s too good to be ignored, and a new rendition would’ve been intriguing given how the original toed the line of the Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby sounds. The last few I’ll mention are “Love Rescue Me,” “The Wanderer” — which really could have replaced “Stay” — and “The Showman (Little More Better).” In the case of “The Showman,” I was so excited when I saw it was a chapter title in Surrender. It’s a standout track from Songs of Experience, and I would’ve loved to see U2 take another swing at the song. After all, they dropped it from their setlist in 2018 after rehearsing it.
Love them or hate them, U2 has done it again. Songs of Surrender is the best reimagining of nostalgia since Cat Stevens/Yusuf’s reimagining of Tea Time for the Tillerman. Coming in with the knowledge that the band’s stadium anthems have been stripped down into slower, more meditative renditions is important, but it’s filled with gems. Very few live up to the weighty legacies of their predecessors, but I doubt that the point of the album is to replace the originals. Sometimes, you can’t make it on your own and you’ve got to change, and if that means dreaming up 40 of your biggest songs to date again, in the case of U2, let them sing their new (old) songs.
The essential tracks (in no particular order):
- “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
- “If God Will Send His Angels”
- “With or Without You”
- “The Little Things That Give You Away”
- “Stories for Boys”
Songs of Surrender will be released on March 17.
Bee Gees Biopic Snags ‘Hustlers’ Director Lorene Scafaria to Helm Musical Biopic on Iconic Disco Group
The hunger for music biopics has been immense in recent years with such examples as Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody and the upcoming, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, cornering the film market looking to box-office success other than something that is categorized as a tentpole. One such musical group that has a biographical film in development is the iconic disco group, The Bee Gees and per an exclusive from Above the Line, it appears the project has honed in on a director.
Per the report, Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) will step in to direct after Sing Street director, John Carney has exited the project. The currently untitled biopic on the Bee Gees will have a script from John Logan (The Aviator, Skyfall) with Scafaria now being the third director attached following Carney’s exit before Paramount’s original choice, Kenneth Branagh stepped off the project back in March. The Bee Gees of course encompassed a trio of brothers, Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb who became massive stars in disco in the 1970s headlined by their influential soundtrack for the film, Saturday Night Fever.
Unfortunately, as displayed in the 2020 HBO documentary, Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Maurice and Robin Gibb passed away decades apart leaving Barry Gibb as the only surviving member of the group. However, he’s aimed to keep the band’s legacy alive granting the music rights to Paramount to develop this feature film. The Bee Gees are one of the best-selling music groups of all-time selling over 220 million records worldwide.
This is far from the only musical biopic being developed for the studio as they are also in development on a film revolving around Bob Marley with Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami, Secret Invasion) attached to play the late reggae singer.
So Fetch! Paramount Sets ‘Mean Girls’ Musical with Renee Rapp, Angourie Rice Leading
Paramount has continued to go into the well for more fetches within IP but nothing gets more “fetch” than this. According to a report from Variety, the studio is setting a big-screen musical adaptation of Mean Girls. The original 2004 film was originally adapted for a Broadway show forming inspiration for this latest take on the original Lindsay Lohan movie.
Renee Rapp (The Sex Lives of College Girls) will reprise her role as Regina George for the film after playing the character originally in the Broadway Show. The arch nemesis of Lohan’s Cady Heron was played by Oscar-nominee Rachel McAdams in the original 2004 iteration while Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys, Mare of Easttown) will play Cady in this film. Rapp and Rice will be joined in the cast by Auli’i Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey. Cravalho is best known for voicing Moana while Spivey is a Broadway stalwart having portrayed Usher in the stage musical, A Strange Loop as well as being Tony and Grammy-nominated.
Tina Fey (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live) will write this version of the story after penning both the stage musical and original film version. Arturo Perez and Samantha Jayne will direct the movie which is expected to stream on Paramount+.
Rapp is best known for playing Leighton Murray, one of the four leads on HBO Max comedy, The Sex Lives of College Girls. She also just released her first EP “Everything to Everyone.” Rice recently appeared in Paramount+ original film, Honor Society alongside Stranger Things actor Gaten Matarazzo. Cravalho can currently be seen in Hulu original, Darby and the Dead before appearing in the highly anticipated Amazon drama, The Power which also stars Toni Collette and John Leguizamo.
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