New movie Hamilton fans need to see

The minds of Hamilton and Crazy Rich Asians have met to create this much-anticipated movie that’s getting glowing reviews.

On an icy morning in December 2019, Jon M. Chu sat in his office in New York’s Midtown, working on the final cut of his new movie In The Heights.

Based on the 2008 Broadway musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda long before he dreamed up Hamilton, the movie adaptation was set to be a celebration of the Latinx community that makes up the Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, as well as serving as Chu’s joyous follow up to his smash hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians.

The night before, the filmmaker had travelled uptown to the Heights where, at a salsa club serving coquito, a Puerto Rican drink made from rum and coconut, he previewed the first trailer to friends, family and the media, alongside his collaborator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and stars Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace.

They partied on late into the evening, but early the next morning Chu was already back in his editing suite and hard at work. By his estimate, In The Heights would be out in the world within eight months. He had work to do.

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Sitting in that office on that icy morning in December 2019, Chu’s excitement for his new film was palpable. “We have a cut,” he revealed to news.com.au. “We showed it last weekend.

“I can’t tell you what we got, but it was higher than any movie I’ve ever made,” he adds, with a laugh. “So we’re in a good spot. Still some tweaks to go … We’re getting through it. It’s a lot of movie, if you can’t tell.”

Then the pandemic happened, and In The Heights was pushed into 2021, along with almost every other major movie on the calendar.

For some films, the delay in release has been more of a hindrance than a help.

But in the case of In The Heights, that one year postponement has meant the world: in the interim, anticipation for the film has reached fever pitch, both in the US and in Australia, where audiences have become obsessed with all things Miranda courtesy of the Sydney premiere of Hamilton and the release of the original Broadway cast recording on Disney+.

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For fans of Hamilton, and Miranda’s tongue-twisting way with words, In The Heights will prove a delight: a glimpse into the extraordinary mind of one of our best lyricists, courtesy of this epic musical written when Miranda was just a 19-year-old university student, armed with nothing but a dream.

In The Heights is the story of a community close to Miranda’s heart. The musical maestro grew up in Washington Heights and still lives there to this day, as does Quiara Alegría Hudes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who is Miranda’s co-writer on the original musical and film.

The story centres on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner, and his best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) as they navigate love and life on their block, crossing paths with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Nina (Leslie Grace). Unlike the sweeping, historic arc of Hamilton’s narrative, In The Heights takes place over just one humid New York summer.

It’s the story of hopes and dreams, love, family and growing up, and out of, the city where you were born. Early reviews of the film have been so glowing you could light your dinner table with them.

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Washington Heights isn’t Chu’s own community. Unlike Miranda or Hudes – or even Grace, who grew up the daughter of Dominican Republic immigrants nearby in the Bronx – Chu is a California-raised Asian American filmmaker. Still, “it’s a place that changed my life,” Chu enthuses.

Meeting the close knit Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican communities in Washington Heights reminded him of his own childhood, the son of Taiwanese immigrants to the US, one of five children born to parents who owned a Chinese restaurant.

“All their hopes and all their dreams of coming to America, and working hard and loving what we did – that was instilled in us at the very beginning,” Chu recalls. “You could do anything if you worked hard and you loved it … We believed in that dream.”

Chu came up in the world of music videos and concert documentaries – he directed the acclaimed Justin Bieber: Never Say Never documentary and the Step Up films – so big musical dance numbers are in his wheelhouse.

What he had to learn, however, were the intricacies of the Washington Heights community. Chu’s outsider status benefited him on In The Heights, he says.

“What did I do when I came to Washington Heights and where did Lin take me? He took me to his local bodega and we had cafe con leche,” Chu recalls. “Where did we eat? Where did we go? What were the dinners like with his family? What were the smells like? What were the sauces on the tables? Those little details – because I was fresh, really helped,” he adds. “But I was definitely aware of that. From day one on set we had an open dialogue.”

If something didn’t feel authentic in a scene, Chu encouraged the cast and crew to speak up. He remembers one time in Abuela’s (Olga Merediz) apartment when Hudes pointed out that the dinner plates were matching; Abuela wouldn’t have had a complete set, she stressed. Another time, someone corrected the brand of hot sauce on the table. “It’s a different way of filmmaking,” Chu says, “and I really love it. It makes me much more actively involved.”

Chu has an eye for up-and-coming faces: Crazy Rich Asians is the film that cemented the movie star status of Awkwafina, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan.

With In The Heights, he will do the same with Ramos – starring as Usnavi, the role his Hamilton mentor Miranda originally wrote for himself – Barrera, Hawkins and Grace.

Many have commented on the familial relationships between the cast on Crazy Rich Asians, who famously spent most nights off hanging out at hawker stalls in Singapore and feasting on mud crab.

The same is true on In The Heights. “I think there is a shared common struggle that these actors have gone through. Everyone had stories for days about what parts they had gone out for that were offensive or stereotypical, and how they had to fight back,” Chu explains.

“With that struggle, there is an automatic I see you, and you see me. And the fact that you’re making a project that tears all that away, already that gives you a sense of community for each other.”

Warner Bros underwent an 18-month long search for its cast, settling on this core foursome and charging them with carrying each of the film’s many and varied musical numbers, which veer from soaring ballads to sweet love songs, fiery salsa dances and the trademark Miranda rap verses.

Grace, a Latin Grammy Award-winning singer, had never acted before.

Barrera, who is best known for the television series Vida, but is about to have a huge year with In The Heights, the Scream reboot and Carmen, which she filmed in Australia with co-star Paul Mescal, is a radiant singer but has no dance experience – and her character Vanessa has an entire sequence in a salsa club.

“And we don’t have dance doubles!” Chu reveals. “They just had to trust us … that we were going to protect them,” he adds. “I think that bonds you.”

The cast became family, and then family literally became the film. During filming – like, quite literally on a Friday while in the middle of production – Chu and his wife gave birth to their second child, a baby boy that they named Jonathan Heights.

The timing of his arrival, in mid-2019 as Chu was shooting the movie, wasn’t ideal. “We gotta start early, because it takes people some time,” Chu remembers his wife telling him. “I guess not,” he deadpans, before laughing.

“We were like two weeks off [starting],” he says, when they found out that they were expecting. All through the making of In The Heights, the impending birth of his son was forefront in Chu’s mind. “I think a lot about my daughter and my son,” he explains.

“I don’t want them to see my family and think ‘This is the Asian side.’” (Chu’s wife is “blonde hair, blue eyes from Arizona,” he explains.)

“I want them, when they see an Asian grandmother on the street – like this is my grandmother, let me go help her. I want them to love Chinese food … and making this movie, and the intimacy of the family, I really wanted to share that.”

On the day of his son’s birth, Hudes took over directing duty and Chu had a long weekend. A few weeks before, he sat down with Hudes and Miranda and asked them for permission to name his son Heights. “Lin was crying,” Chu recalls. “It was a really sweet moment.”

Chu chose that name, not because it was “based off a movie that I was making,” he stresses. “It was based off a feeling that we felt coming to New York,” he explains. “I’m a California boy, and so coming here and being accepted into this family and seeing how they treat each other, and the dreams that they have. That’s what I want for my son. To have dreams that are beyond what actually exists.”

In The Heights is in cinemas 24 June, with sneak previews from 11 June.

Entertainment – syndicated | Herald Sun