Film Review – Hamilton
I was not one of the lucky few to see Hamilton on Broadway when it first debuted. Let’s face it, not many of us were. It was the hottest musical from 2015-2016, generating praise from theater fans, celebrities, politicians, and everyone in between. It was the brainchild of one Lin-Manuel Miranda, who read Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton and somehow believed the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers would make a great subject for singing and dancing.
And it did. The show (written, composed, and starring Miranda) became a smash hit, garnering critical acclaim for blending history with modern hip hop, R&B, pop, soul, and traditional show tunes. Even more notable was the deliberate casting of people of color in roles well known to be white. It was a highly progressive decision that emphasizes how the country evolved from its birth to today. The innovative approach earned the show countless awards, including the 2016 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It makes sense that four years later, on 4th of July weekend, the filmed version of the show is now available to stream on Disney+. In a time where political and racial lines are at a boiling point and an ongoing pandemic has flipped our way of living, here comes a piece of art that looks to inspire instead of dishearten. Shot over three days in June 2016, the film (directed by Thomas Kail) has us watch the original production featuring the original cast members. What was once an exclusive engagement (for those that could afford the tickets) is now something all of us can share collectively.
As the title would suggest, the film traces the life of politician, war veteran, lawyer, economist, essayist, and 1st Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. It’s broken into two parts – the first following him as he immigrates from the Caribbean to New York, where his keen mind, writing skills, and unlimited ambition shot him all the way up the political ladder. This would lead him to be George Washington’s (Christopher Jackson) right hand man during the Revolutionary War. The second half depicts Hamilton’s life after America gained its independence. We see him as Secretary of the Treasury and during his foundation of numerous entities (such as the nation’s first central bank, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the New York Post). There are two major plotlines. The first is Hamilton’s relationship with his wife Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo). The other is his intense rivalry with fellow politician and eventual Vice President Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).
On paper, this story seems as dry as could be. But on stage, Hamilton’s life is one of constant movement and energy. The theater production remains the same, with the backdrop never changing scenery. The only notable piece of “magic” is a spinning ring located in the middle of the stage, allowing performers to change position while standing in place. Everything else is dependent on the performances, and each of the participants lives up to the challenge.
I could only imagine what the script Miranda handed to the cast looked like – it must have been a thousand-page tome. The show is heavy with rapid pace dialogue. Characters spill words out like an avalanche, whether they are speaking, singing, or rapping. There is such a cascade of word play that the ensemble has to be commended for memorizing all of those lines. Not only do they have to express their characters’ thoughts, they also have to provide historical context to what we are seeing. It’s hard to name a favorite musical number because there is a such an abundance of them, to single out one or two would be near impossible.
Some might argue that this isn’t really a “film” because it only recorded the stage performance, but that belief is incorrect. While we are placed in an audience member position at first, Kail (along with director of photography Declan Quinn and editor Jonah Moran) do allow for cinema to play a role. The camera not only sits away from the stage but takes part in it as well. There are scenes where we step on to the stage to a capture a performer in close up, amplifying the intimacy of the moment. Other times the frame shoots from a high angle looking straight down, making full use of the rotating ring. The show itself takes advantage of cinematic language. During the ballroom number the production stops in mid-stride and reverses itself – like a VHS tape being rewound – and then replayed from a different character’s perspective.
There are a lot of highlights to touch upon, but I’ll name a few. The first, of course, is Lin-Manual Miranda, whose work here (both in the show’s creation and as a performer) made him an instant household name. Leslie Odom Jr. gives a tremendous performance as Aaron Burr. We see how Burr developed such jealousy for Hamilton despite holding the second most powerful position in all of government. There’s also Renee Elise Goldsberry’s role as Angelica Schuyler, Eliza’s sister. We learn that Angelica also had feelings for Hamilton, and Goldsberry delivers some showstopping moments expressing that yearning. Daveed Diggs – in the dual role of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson – should be rewarded for fastest line delivery (thank God for subtitles). And in a small (but significant) part is Jonathan Groff as King George of England. Groff is hilarious as the goofy king – I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone consistently drool at the mouth while hitting high notes.
I’m sure detractors will look at this and point out numerous historical inaccuracies but doing so would be missing the point. Hamilton was (and is) a work that touches on the potential this country has to be great. Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done (an understatement) and perhaps in these trying times optimism may be hard to come by. But the fact that a group of black and brown people headline a major production – when a short time ago they may not have even been allowed in the building – goes to show that the pursuit of happiness is still a very real thing.