On Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Where We Come From” was a triumph. More than a decade later, director John M. Cho (“Crazy Rich Asians”) brought it to the big screen, allowing new audiences to discover this work full of sunshine, life’s zest and hope.
The title in the original version, “In the Heights”, refers to Washington Heights, an area of New York north of the island of Manhattan that now hosts the majority of the population of Dominican origin after having been, over the centuries, the prime place of residence for Irish, Italian, and Jewish communities.
The script revolves around Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the feature film narrator and owner of the “bodega”, the New York equivalent of a department store, who dreams of a better life. We meet Claudia (Olga Meredez), her grandmother in Usnavi, Benny (Corey Hawkins), her best friend, Nina (Leslie Grace) a student, as well as Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of being a seamstress, who is Usnavi. Adores. In addition to Love Crossroads, the plot revolves around a winning lottery ticket, sold by Usnavi, that takes place during a heat wave and a long blackout across the neighborhood.
From the first scenes, the viewer is immersed in the reality of immigrants. Work, the rupture between adopted country (the United States) and origin, questions about responsibility to one’s community, all wrapped in music and dances. Because, let’s not forget, John M Choo became known for his productions “Street Dance” (2008) and “Dancing Street 3D” (2010) in which he made an impressive use of relief technology.
“Who wouldn’t want to work with Lin Manuel?” I had seen the Broadway musical when I was working on my first movie, Dancing in the Streets, because one of our dancers was on the cast. “I was impressed even though I’m neither from Washington Heights nor Latinos,” John M. Choo recalled during an interview with QMI.
“The musical was about things I lived through as a kid growing up in a Chinese restaurant, as a first generation of a family born here in the States, many things I couldn’t express. — even. Lin knows how to say things to make them real and personal. So I stayed” In Heights “is always in my heart and in my head. When the producers called me 10 years ago, maybe more, and asked if I was interested in doing the movie version, I jumped at the opportunity.”
The film is full of notes about immigration and racism. So we might be tempted to label it “political” in the post-Trump era, an adjective the filmmaker has refrained from using. “No, it wasn’t a political issue at all. On the other hand, it was always about making a human movie, showing battles and expressing feelings.”
“We didn’t tell ourselves that we had to include such-and-such a theme in the movie. However, we knew that the musical was about gentrification. Today, that’s not the case with the neighborhood anymore. So each character had to have a different take because there was no A villain in the movie.”
The visual poet John M. Chu has never sought to make “Where We Come From” a modern classic. “I don’t deny my influences, I grew up with classical musicals. So I wanted to go back to the sources of their reasons for being. When words are not enough, music must come in, because it conveys what a paragraph of dialogue does not.”
“We took every single song in the musical and took a good look at the lyrics. The audience almost didn’t notice that the actors were singing. Every room is part of their communication method. That’s what we focused on.”
“We gave each character permission to express themselves as they liked,” he noted, referring to a scene in which huge pieces of cloth fall from buildings. For Vanessa, I wanted to translate the idea that she wants to run and go without necessarily knowing where she wants to go. You will not cry, you will run, but the fabric will become the tears that fall on these buildings. For me, that’s what it means to be a prisoner.”
“Where We Come From” is a film full of hope, about victory over adversity and a sense of community. Does this mean that Jun Im Cho is an optimist by nature?
Optimism is not enough. I firmly believe that people can achieve anything. What I’ve seen in Washington Heights, and around the world for that matter, are people fighting. Society in general, and the family as well, help them to overcome difficulties. For me, life is not a fairy tale. “A dream is not a gift,” Osnavi says. “You have to make it a reality.” For me, after a year of confinement and feeling helpless, this lesson in resilience has become even more beautiful.”
“I believe in a bright future. How can we not believe it, especially as a Chinese kid who grew up in a restaurant dreaming of becoming a manager? How can we not believe it when Lin, who was unable to find roles, decided to write some roles for him? How not to be an optimist? How Can’t believe we can change the world and build a homeland for ourselves?”
“The American Dream is not a franchise. We have to create it. Every generation makes their own American dream, and every generation pushes it a little bit more and makes it a reality. These are the ideas that inspired me in the film and in Lynn’s work. I hope that’s what audiences will find there.”
“Where did we come from” in some production secrets …
- The “96000” song scene was filmed in two (new) days with 500 extras.
- The “Carnival del Barrio” had 60 dancers who worked 14 hours on a sweltering day.
- The scenes set in the Dominican Republic were filmed on Long Island Beach.
- The interior of the “bodega” as well as the interior of the hairdressing salon are built on trays.
- Only a few scenes were filmed in Washington Heights.
- No actor has been dubbed, neither to songs nor to dance numbers.
- Where We Come From” spreads harmony and humor in movie theaters and in video on demand via illico and other digital platforms.