Summer blockbuster movie of hope In The Heights has 'people are talking about immigration in a very new and active way'
After more than a year of living in a pandemic, In The Heights is the feel-good movie we all need this summer – a musical about people with dreams of a better life. Georgia Humphreys finds out more
BEING hailed as history-making is nothing new for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M Chu.
The former - a writer, actor and composer who hails from New York - is best known for the hip-hop musical Hamilton, which famously used a diverse cast to portray historical white figures.
Meanwhile, Chu directed Crazy Rich Asians, a contemporary English-language Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast which became a breakout box office hit.
Now, they've joined forces to put the Latinx community in the centre of the frame, telling the stories of immigrants and first-generation people living in a largely Dominican neighbourhood in New York, called Washington Heights.
Lively musical drama In The Heights is based on the Broadway hit of the same name, which won multiple Tony awards, with music and lyrics written by Miranda and a screenplay by the original book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes.
It's an all-Latino cast, and having this representation in a huge blockbuster summer movie feels mightily significant.
"Crazy Rich Asians really taught me a lot about the power of seeing someone who looks like yourself on the big screen," notes California-born Chu (41).
"I didn't understand it fully until seeing it with an audience, people hanging out in the lobby and telling their friends and bringing their grandmothers - and that's beyond Asian American people - and then [them] wanting to know, 'Oh, what's that music like? What's that food like? I want to go to Singapore'.
"I knew that the opportunity for that for Washington Heights was there, and I knew the personal connection that Lin and Quiara had - they still live in that neighbourhood."
Chu shares how he ended up falling in love with the area himself too.
"I even named my son that was born during the movie Heights, because it was just so beautiful and I wanted to say that word every day of my life, and I wanted him to hear that word."
At the centre of In The Heights is a magnetic bodega owner called Usnavi, who's played by Anthony Ramos.
Hugely likeable Usnavi narrates the film, which is set over one summer where an ensemble of characters are going through seismic change, having to overcome obstacles as they persevere to reach their goals.
Most of the story - one about community and togetherness - is set at one intersection central to the neighbourhood, and features a variety of styles of songs and dances, from hip-hop to Latin to pop and musical theatre.
It's the sort of music that New Yorker Ramos (29) grew up listening to - but something he had never really seen on screen before now.
Discussing how In The Heights is giving a huge platform to Latinx performers, he notes how Miranda (41) originally wrote the role in the stage play for himself, because he didn't see a world where someone would write a part like that for him.
"And I think that has a ripple effect - it starts with one person," continues Ramos, who originated the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway in 2015.
"In The Heights closed on Broadway in 2011; 10 years later and there's a movie out, and it's a major motion picture.
"They had to fight. I think Lin had the final cut on this movie - studios don't give people final cut. But again, it takes a person to say, 'This is how I want to do it, I believe in this. We're not going to try and go get stars, we're going to get the people we feel are right'."
Another star of the film is Jimmy Smits, who's known for TV shows such as L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and The West Wing, and who plays local car service owner Kevin Rosario.
The 65-year-old New Yorker says the music of In The Heights "hits to the heart".
And then there are the themes it explores; "the idea of community and where is home, and one generation wanting the other one to succeed, patience and faith - all of those things, they're going to resonate, I feel, for movie audiences.
"And, after what we've been through in terms of the pandemic, I think society is ripe for this little joy. 'Ofrenda', we say in Spanish - 'offering'."
Making a stage show into a film means the world and storytelling can be expanded, and so there were details that were included that hadn't been previously.
This includes specific references to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca), a programme that was created by the Obama administration to allow children who were unlawfully brought to the US as undocumented immigrants - nicknamed Dreamers - to live and work in the US without fear of deportation.
"I think in the contemporary moment, people are talking about immigration in a very new and active way and you hear that more presently," suggests writer Hudes, who's 44 and from Pennsylvania.
"That's always been part of the conversation in the community and the concern in the community for decades."
She also details the education she had from Miranda when she first moved to Washington Heights.
"We spent a lot of time walking through the community, and he was like, 'This is what I want In The Heights to sound like', because you would hear the music coming out of stores, coming out of cars, coming out of living rooms with the windows open," she says.
Anyone who has seen the stage show should also notice a specific lyric has changed in the song 96,000; golfer Tiger Woods makes a cameo that was previously occupied by former US president Donald Trump.
"The culture changed that lyric," reflects Miranda. "When I wrote that lyric in 2005, he [Trump] was a famous reality TV host and before that he was just sort of a live-action monopoly man.
"My parents had a Trump board game in the '80s. He kind of put his name on everything with gold on it.
"And so, when time makes a fool of the lyric and we're in the middle of this joyous aspirational number, that name rings like a discordant bell - it's like a clang."
In The Heights is in cinemas now