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Director Jon M. Chu and stars Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Stephanie Beatriz and Jimmy Smits were on hand at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre to kick off the screening, which featured one of the city’s first real red carpets and in-person theater experiences amid the pandemic. In The Heights, which will also host a world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, is also among the first wave of movies to bringing audiences around the country back to theaters, something Chu calls “an honor.”
“We didn’t know if our movie was ever even going to come out, so I feel very grateful and I’m excited because I know our movie will deliver joy and happiness to the world and entertain the hell out of them,” the director told THR. “Get ready, hold onto your butts, you’re going to feel proud and you’re going to remember your family and community and how important it is in your life.”
Added Barrera, “After a year of being alone and indoors, this movie is all about being outdoors and dancing in the streets, so I think it’ll make people very happy,” as Grace noted that the memories of shooting the film in summer 2019 got her through some of the hardest days of the Covid-19 shutdown.
“For a moment there I felt like all the good things in life died during the pandemic, and remembering this thing that we made and remembering the beauty of dreaming and aspiring to something and hope and persistence through another day and celebrating life even in the struggle, that brought me through,” Grace said.
The Warner Bros. musical is based off Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical of the same name, and stars Anthony Ramos as a bodega owner in New York City’s Washington Heights working for a better life and dreaming of returning to his family’s native Dominican Republic. With the film’s largely Latino and Black cast and constant infusion of Latin culture, Chu hopes to open eyes and expand horizons with his spotlight on the neighborhood.
“People who aren’t from that community are curious about ‘Oh what’s that food, Oh what’s that song, Oh what’s that dance?’ and they ask their friend and their friend brings them in,” said Chu. “I think that’s the power of movies, I saw it with Crazy Rich Asians — when you see something you can’t unsee it, and when curiosity drives it you won’t let go. You’ll Google everything about it and that won’t ever leave your life.”
Inside the screening event, Chu and the cast were welcomed to the Chinese Theatre stage with a standing ovation as Chu announced, “Welcome back to the movies!” He shouted out his cast and reflected on the emotion of shooting the film in the real Washington Heights, a place that became so meaningful he named his son Heights so he could reflect on the experience daily.
“We had people in the background of a park and they said, ‘They’ve never shot a movie here without a cop car, do you know how different that is?’ And it made us cry every day,” Chu said, declaring that as life returns, “It’s going to be Washington Heights that shows the world how to get up again.”
In The Heights hits theaters and HBO Max on June 11.
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