We all need a little joy right now. It's been a long year, to say the least, and with the world starting to open back up, joy seems a little more accessible than during the darkest depth of 2020. One of the places where we can find that elusive feeling of elation is on the big screen – that's right, the movies are back, and leading the way in the joy department is In the Heights, a new all-singing, all-dancing musical about life in Washington Heights.
"We've been through a lot in 2020," director Jon M. Chu tells GamesRadar+. "And if there's anything that people who are watching In the Heights know, it’s how to get back up, dust themselves off, and that they need each other to do that. There's no better example of recovery than these people in Washington Heights. And through song and dance that will not chastise you, but fill you with love to float you up to the top."
In the Heights sees the community of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York City with a large Latinx population, at a crossroads during the hottest days of summer, both on a personal level and on a larger scale. Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is yearning to return to Puerto Rico, while his long-time crush, Vanessa (Melissa Barerra), wants to pursue a career in fashion design. Meanwhile, gentrification is sweeping through the streets – rents are increasing and long-standing family businesses are having to move to different areas or close down entirely. It's a movie about a community in flux, but a community with big dreams.
A key difference between the film and the stage production – written by Hamilton hit-maker Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes – is the addition of a framing device that hints at the future: at the start of the movie, and at other moments throughout, we see Usnavi telling the story of In the Heights to a group of kids, one of whom, we later find out, is his daughter. A big motivation for director Chu was his own experience of parenthood – his first daughter was born just after he made the 2018 rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians.
"Suddenly, you realize the most important story you're ever going to tell is the story of the world to your kids, and how you're going to paint it. And you start to reflect on how the world was painted for you, and what was wrong, or what was right about that," Chu says.
"And so I thought a lot about how to tell the story of the world to my children, and I'm a storyteller. So I can do that through my movies. And the fact that [Usnavi's daughter] looks at the camera, the only other person who looks at the camera, other than her father, it's her, and looks right at our audience and says, 'We got this'."
Miranda, now 41, first wrote the musical at age 19 when he was still at college. After playwright Hudes came on board in 2004, the show eventually had an off-Broadway run in 2007 before opening on Broadway in early 2008. The cast have nothing but good things to say about Miranda, who served as a producer on the movie as well as making a cameo as Piraguero, a street vendor who sells piragua, a Puerto Rican sweet treat made out of shaved ice. "Being around him just wants you to become a better artist and a better human," Vanessa actor Melissa Barrera says.
As well as telling the story of Usnavi and Vanessa, In The Heights also features Nina, the pride of Washington Heights who returns following her first year at Stanford college. Jimmy Smits, who plays Nina’s father, recalls a particular musical number, "Carnaval del Barrio" – a big, stirring ensemble performance.
"To be at the 'Carnaval del Barrio' sequence was very special for me because we only had this one day to shoot it," he says. "And Lin-Manuel Miranda... Jon put him up on a fire escape... and you could see him looking down at this 150 group of extras and dancing, and this is something he did when he was 19 years old – he wrote this as a graduate thing for university – and to see it go through the different iterations... the success, how it changed the nature of the Broadway musical, and now to see it realized in film, it was a very emotional moment that all of us were a part of and felt very emotional about."
The movie is personal to many of the cast members, who are themselves part of the Latinx community. "I didn't really pull from a lot of movie musicals I'd seen before because me and Sonny are so similar to one another," says Gregory Diaz IV, who portrays lead character Usnavi’s younger cousin, Sonny.
"It was more so just picking different bits and pieces of myself – you know, growing up in New York for 14 years at that point, and just being able to pull different parts from me, different parts of my neighborhood, different parts of what I saw around my neighborhood from my family… that was really what I used to help mold Sonny."
Leslie Grace – who plays Nina – says the movie also speaks to her own life, with her favorite musical number being "Paciencia y Fe", an emotional song involving matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). "It is the first time that I get to see a woman like Abuela Claudia honored in the way that I feel, in my heart, that my grandmother's story should be honored," she says.
"There are so many women, so many people, who go through such a thing, they bring the best of them to a new country or to a new place to start anew and hopefully turn their life into something that their grandchildren can make the best of themselves because of their struggle, and they never get a 'Thank you'," she continues. "And you get to see Abuela have her moment and tell her story and then the audience takes that in and takes in her contributions to this place, New York City, where she scrubbed floors and created her own chosen family and supported the community."
Merediz returned to the role of Abuela more than 10 years after she played the character both on and off Broadway. "I feel like I gave her a little bit more depth and maturity because I have grown as a person, we all grow every year that passes, we grow as human beings," she says. "So together with Jon Chu's amazing visuals and the way he opened everything up, it just really supported me and it was just a dream come true to be able to bring this character to the cinema."
Over 13 years after its Broadway run, it turns out now’s the perfect time for an In the Heights movie. "It'll be relevant today, just like it'll be relevant In 20 years, and 50 years down the line," adds Corey Hawkins, who plays Usnavi's best friend Benny. "The great, beautiful part about this is now it's global. There's the social element of it, but also just the idea of being dreamers, I think, is just timeless."
In the Heights is out now in US theaters and on HBO Max. The movie reaches UK cinemas on June 18.