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You’re better off dancing
Creative Sensemaker

You’re better off dancing

Thursday 17 June 2021

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is a glorious movie, and one that everyone should go and see. Almost inevitably, there has been a social media row over its content. But why not just enjoy its cinematic magic?

If the prospect of at least another month of Covid restrictions fills you with gloom, go and see In the Heights (general release, 18 June) this weekend. In fact, go and see it anyway. This is a different kind of shot in the arm, and one that, in a single dose, and with no side effects, offers a high percentage of instant immunity against the blues.

Adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name – which opened in 2008, seven years before Hamilton – the movie, directed by Jon M. Chu, is a glorious visual, sonic and sensual bombardment that is utterly celebratory without being remotely naive. 

Set in Washington Heights, the quarter of Upper Manhattan that swelters in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, this is an epic song-and-dance movie that tells the tale of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega-owner with dreams; his love for beautician Vanessa (Melissa Barrera); Nina (Leslie Grace), the neighbourhood’s academic star, who has made it to Stanford but feels humiliated by her white classmates; Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at the car service run by Nina’s father (Jimmy Smits); and a cavalcade of cameo characters, including Miranda himself who has a Hitchcock-style turn as “the Piragua guy”, a street vendor.

As in Hamilton, the governing aesthetic is drawn from hip hop: this is the key that opens the door to street sass lyrics, a rhythm that transforms breadline drudgery into escapist dance numbers, and a creative alchemy that allows Miranda to transcend the adversity his characters face without betraying them.

Most impressive is the sheer eclecticism of style and influence: In the Heights raids the larder of Old Hollywood to stage its own Busby Berkeley numbers, animation to make fun of the local boys squaring up to one another, magic realism to send dancers waltzing up a building, Bollywood in the sheer scale of its choreography, and a string of New York classics – from West Side Story to Do the Right Thing – in its homage to this capricious, irresistible city. 

It presents America as a raucous block party rather than a riot-torn republic on its knees. All the same: the plot makes plenty of space for social issues, not least the plight of undocumented children, the threat of gentrification, and the tensions implicit in the multi-culturalism that Miranda has done so much to champion. The dreamscape in which it is set is firmly rooted in reality.

So it is a shame that the movie’s opening has been marred by a controversy over its alleged lack of diversity and inadequate representation of Afro-Latinos. Leslie Grace herself has lamented that she “didn’t really get to see myself or people that look like my siblings that are darker than me on screen.” Cue social media outrage.

Without pausing, Miranda capitulated to the swelling critique. “It is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it,” he said in his apology, “particularly among the leading roles.” His contrition was unequivocal: “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.”

Look: I’m obviously in no position to judge how “erased” the US Afro-Latino community truly feels by In the Heights. Perhaps they do indeed regard the movie as a monstrous impertinence, just another example of “colourism” in mainstream culture. And if Miranda feels disposed to make amends, that’s entirely his prerogative.

But a word of caution: when did the primary objective of so much supposed artistic appreciation and criticism become the denunciation of creatives for this or that political misstep, and the relentless extraction of apologies? When did that become the point?

Few artists in the past quarter century have done as much as Miranda to champion diversity on stage and screen, and to insist that minority representation should be a priority for all those with power in the entertainment industry. And yet it is hard to avoid the impression that precisely this accomplishment has put a target on his back, and nurtured a shabby yearning by those who consider themselves more virtuous to catch him out, and make him – somehow, for something – say “sorry”.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Well, job done – though what has really been achieved by the public humiliation of this formidable artist is anyone’s guess. (In which context, don’t miss this extraordinary essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the “obscene” puritanism and scolding of contemporary social media culture.)

None of which should deter you from heading to your closest movie house and revelling in the old-school cinematic magic of In the Heights. Art can indeed be polemic, but it can also be pure enchantment – and sometimes that is precisely what it should be.

Agonise over the movie’s precise social content and its supposed political shortcomings if you wish. You paid for the ticket, after all. But – honestly – you’d be better off dancing.

Our next Creative Sensemaker Live is on Friday 25 June, at 13:00 BST, and will ask: Is classical music boring and elitist? Among the speakers will be the chief executive of the English National Opera, Stuart Murphy. You can book your place here.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) (selected cinemas, Curzon Home Cinema)

A tremendously enjoyable coming-of-age rom com – with a twist of Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply thrown in for good measureas a ghostly aunt returns to steer Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) towards true love with Abbie (Zoe Terakes). A well-paced subplot has Ellie trying to discover exactly how her aunt Tara (Julia Billington) died, and what underpins the burden of pain with which that loss has left her mother (Marta Dusseldorp). 

The Father (general release)

Even if, like me, you hoped that Chadwick Boseman would be awarded a posthumous Best Actor Oscar this year, you’ll finally understand, when you see Florian Zeller’s The Father, why the Academy chose Anthony Hopkins. In the performance of a lifetime, Hopkins explores dementia as a journey through long corridors of fear, in which nothing is stable: not the layout of his flat, not the identity of his daughter, not the appearance of her husband.

Hallucination and reality merge, overlap and grind against one another, so that the viewer is – by design – as confused as Hopkins. His oscillation between rage against the dying of the light and the “second childishness” of old age is breathtaking.

Katla (Netflix)

This Icelandic drama mystery imagines the violent upheaval of a community by a volcanic eruption, and adds an edge of sci-fi dystopia as characters, missing for a year, rise from the ashes. Baltasar Kormákur – who directed Everest (2015) – has a talent for extracting psychological unease from turbulent geography, and presents a world of deep weirdness in which one is nonetheless quickly invested in the fate of the characters. Recommended.


About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks – David Rooney (Viking)

Billed as a “horological history of human civilisation”, David Rooney’s exquisite book is nothing less than a retelling of our collective story as a saga of timekeeping and the mechanisms with which we measure the passing of the hours. From the Roman capture of a Carthaginian sundial in 263 BC, via the Muslim and Christian understanding of time as a symbol of divine order, to the intimate connection between clocks and capitalism, the former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory Greenwich offers genuinely original insights into the way in which technology mediates culture, belief, commerce and power.

Assembly – Natasha Brown (Hamish Hamilton)

Brown’s debut novella has been widely compared to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and it is not hard to see why. Fragmentary, elusive and interior, the prose aspires to match precisely the moment-by-moment experience of a Black British woman negotiating her way through the shoals of class, racial bias and social expectation – not least her relationship with a boyfriend “who himself understands, in his flesh and bones and blood and skin, that he was born to helm this great nation – upon which the sun has never set. Not yet.” Beguiling and beautifully written, this is the work of an author with a bright future.

Seven Ways to Change the World: How to Fix the Most Pressing Problems We Face – Gordon Brown (Simon & Schuster)

There are plenty of books being published that aspire to the task that Gordon Brown sets himself. But this is the real deal: a manual for tackling the great challenges of our era, from global health and climate change to educational inequality and financial instability. The coal-face experience of the former Prime Minister – notably in the crash of 2007-8 – fills every chapter, as does his absolute decency and towering intellect. (You can watch Gordon Brown in conversation with Tortoise co-founder, James Harding, here.)


Back of My Mind – H.E.R (18 June)

“Things that feel too honest, or too vulnerable, or too emotional, or too, you know, aggressive… It’s like a peek into my soul.” Thus does H.E.R describe the inspiration of her new album (the latest single, ‘We Made It’, is already online here). Still only 23, she picked up two Grammys earlier this year, and an Oscar for Best Original Song (‘Fight for You’ from Judas and the Black Messiah). Back of My Mind – which includes ‘Come Through’ (with Chris Brown), ‘Slide’ (with YG) and ‘Damage’ – will surely seal her reputation as a truly global star. 

Bach-Beethoven – Andrew Von Oeyen

Of German and Dutch origin, US-born Von Oeyen is one of the most accomplished and celebrated pianists on the concert circuit today, and this album is, in effect, a very personal lockdown journal: “If Bach served as my first musical mooring in confinement, I returned to Beethoven for second-wave pandemic relief… I was now ready to weigh anchor and face the storm in the company of stalwart and indestructible 19th century sonatas.” His interpretation of Bach is markedly different to, say, Glenn Gould’s, with no attempt to emulate the sound of the harpsichord, and his approach to Beethoven is one of fearless attack. A terrific achievement.

Back the Way We Came: Vol. 1 (2011-2021) – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Where do you go after you’ve been the creative force behind one of the greatest bands of all time? If you’re Noel Gallagher, you just keep going, and see where the music takes you. Fronting up a group that is not constrained by a fantastically tense sibling dynamic has liberated him both from the expectation that every single will be as good as ‘Wonderwall’ and from the responsibility to stick to a fairly rigid guitar rock formula. 

The range of the 18 tracks assembled here is a reminder not only of Gallagher’s sheer talent but also of his determination not to pace the Oasis treadmill for the rest of his career. Should be enjoyed in tandem with the Sky Arts documentary, Noel Gallagher: Out of the Now, which features, amongst much else, a storming cover version of Dylan’s ‘Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)’ performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.


The Global Goals Pavilion – Forest for Change, Somerset House

You have until 27 June to see Es Devlin’s extraordinary pop-up forest of 400 trees in the courtyard of Somerset House, a focal point of this year’s London Design Biennale (admission to the forest itself is free). Don’t miss this remarkable experience.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Have a great week.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs Warner Bros, Netflix, Getty Images