Aspiring to New ‘Heights’: Emotional, upbeat film recalls old Hollywood

In the Heights stars Olga Merediz and Jimmy Smits say their musical masterpiece is the perfect anecdote to a rough 18 months.

"It's balanced with emotional and deep moments, but there's a lot of happiness and joy," says Merediz, who plays the matriarch Abuela Claudia. "The musical numbers are just right. The music cuts right through to you and Jon Chu has done an amazing, amazing job with his incredible visuals. I think people are really going to resonate with the characters and I think people are really going to enjoy it."

With a wide smile, Smits says, "ditto," but takes it a step further.

"We've also had to reckon with a lot of social issues in the past year and a half," says Smits, who plays Kevin Rosario, a father who butts heads with his ambitious daughter. "We're hoping that this film provides joy. Musicals tend to be uplifting and inspirational, but the universal themes resonate very strongly. I think this film is something all audiences will be able to grasp."

Set to hit screens on Friday, June 11, In the Heights fuses Lin-Manuel Miranda's music and lyrics with director Chu's lively eye for storytelling. Chu also directed 2018's Crazy Rich Asians.

The film takes viewers to the streets of Washington Heights, where the scent of Cafecito caliente hangs in the air outside of the 181st Street subway stop. Led by bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born), the tight-knit, multicultural community shares its dreams and wishes with each other—in the hopes of paving a way out, while maintaining its ties to Washington Heights.

"I hope people recognize themselves and see themselves and feel proud," Merediz says.

Smith adds viewers mustn't live in Washington Heights to feel for the characters.

"I'm sure you had your nanas, your grandmothers and that," he says. "The city might be different, and the cultural specificity might be a little different, but the feelings of community and family, and how the generation who comes here from another place has expectations for their (children and grandchildren) are all the same. Those are universal things."

Merediz starred as Abuela Claudia on the stage version of In the Heights. She's excited to spread her character's word among the mass of movie lovers.

"I wanted to give Claudia the platform she deserves," says Merediz, referring to her character's age. "She's a character who is overlooked in our society. It's just such a youth-oriented society. It gives me such pleasure to give her that platform."

She explains she enjoyed translating the stage version for film, although it was a little challenging.

"The difference is, on stage, you're delivering to the last row and you're doing things chronologically. In a film, everything is very internal, and you shoot out of sequence. That is a challenge for an actor to keep your place, to where you are to keep that flow and that intensity of the moment in the song. It was definitely challenging, but I was up for the challenge. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

In the Heights will be available in cinemas and on HBO Max. Smits and Merediz say, although it's available to watch at home, In the Heights is worthy of a trip to the movie theater.

"The film has to be seen in the cinema," Merediz says. "These huge numbers are epic, and they need the biggest screen you have. I know in the past year we were in lockdown. We didn't have a choice. I think it's a good idea to have the option to see it in the movies and also at home, if you don't have the ability to go to the cinema. I hope people see it in the theater."

The singing and dancing numbers can translate to a cellphone or computer, but Smits agrees — go to the cinema.

"Jon's chosen to give these visual flourishes to old Hollywood," he adds. "It takes your breath away. He really did such a great job. I hope we bring richness, light and happiness to their (cinema-goers') lives. After the horrible year that we've had, people are ready for a film like this."

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