'Hamilton': Film Review

Hamilton - Publicity 1- H 2020
Puts you smack-bang in the room where it happens.

Thomas Kail directs this live-capture film of Lin-Manuel Miranda's revolutionary musical about the founding fathers with the celebrated original Broadway company, premiering on Disney+.

You'd need to have been holed up like Jared Leto in desert seclusion for a very long time to be unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Hamilton, the formally inventive, emotionally wrenching, turbo-charged musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda that hit Broadway like an adrenaline shot in 2015 and has been a global obsession ever since. In a brief introduction to this thrilling performance-capture film featuring the original company, Miranda observes from lockdown, "So much of what Hamilton is about is how history remembers and how that changes over time."

This is a show that acquires unique shadings at any given moment, and it might never be more impactful than in America in 2020, with the country reeling from extended lockdown, the bitterly divided political landscape mired in chaos and social unrest erupting to a degree unseen since the late 1960s.

A musical in which one of the loudest cheers unfailingly goes to the line, "Immigrants, we get the job done," was bound to resonate after the relentless demonizing of undocumented immigrants by the current administration. And the Black Lives Matter protests that have sprung out of shocking incidents of police brutality have confronted the majority of Americans, irrespective of their skin color, with the racial injustices ingrained in our national DNA.

Part of the genius of Hamilton is its reclamation of U.S. history, of the work of the founding fathers and every fiber of our nationhood, as a narrative belonging as much to people of color as to white Americans. "It takes on a different meaning when you see Black and brown performers telling the origin of our country," says Miranda.

When Disney won the hotly contested bidding rights for the film, the motivation was clearly the huge commercial theatrical potential for a show that is either economically or geographically out of reach to many fans familiar with it only from the cast recording. Perhaps there was the added incentive of an inside track on an eventual feature adaptation. Whatever the original driving factors, all of that changed with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the studio's need for content for its new streaming platform.

The change of plans to a Disney+ premiere, however, has taken on richer, more significant meaning in our current moment of turmoil and anxiety. It provides some much-needed catharsis at a time of renewed hunger for people of color to feel seen, represented, their dignity and rights respected and their intrinsic contribution to American life acknowledged — not viewed with the hostile gaze so often directed at otherness.

I had seen the musical four times, three of them with this stellar original cast, listened countless times to the recording and watched what feels like a hundred Zoom reunions. But experiencing the complete production on film for the first time, I was affected by parts of it more piercingly than ever before. That includes opening night in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when Miranda stepped back into his role as Alexander Hamilton after an absence of more than two years in an engagement that served partly as a fundraiser in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The art of the filmed performance has evolved considerably since the days when a camera or two were plonked down at the rim of the stage and the show unfolded as a static theatrical facsimile. Since staging Hamilton, director Thomas Kail has been sharpening his skills on television work like Grease Live! — still by far the best of the recent spate of live TV musicals — and Fosse/Verdon, a striking hybrid of theatrical performance and conventional narrative.

Kail reprises his role on the film, getting expert backup from cinematographer Declan Quinn. Two actual performances were shot in full with an audience toward the end of the original cast's run at New York's Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016, using multiple cameras. In addition, 13 key songs were filmed between shows, allowing for Steadicam, crane and dolly-mounted cameras to move among the performers.

The result is consistently dynamic, made even more so by the rhythmic editing of Jonah Moran, who also cut Fosse/Verdon. There's a good reason behind every technical choice — close-ups and moments of stillness intensify the intimacy of the more introspective songs; nimble camerawork juices up the contentious Cabinet battles; wide shots and stunning overheads add to the scope of momentous scenes like the fatal duels that punctuate the story.

The film also has the advantage of showcasing the stagecraft in ways arguably not even equaled by a front-row seat. The stylish detailing in Paul Tazewell's costumes; the flexible functionality of David Korins' scenic design of wooden scaffolds and stairs; the propulsive fluidity of Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography all are seen here to great advantage. Perhaps the most revelatory technical element onscreen is Howell Binkley's sumptuous lighting, its moods precisely tailored to each turn of the story.

As for the musical itself, what else needs to be said at this point? The ingenuity and economy of the storytelling never cease to astonish. Take, for example, the full company's electrifying opening number, "Alexander Hamilton," which sketches in the protagonist's backstory in vivid detail, tracing the loss of his family and his arrival in America while also indicating the hunger to make a mark that will come to define him and nodding toward both his future marriage and his premature death. Or "Helpless," the joyous pop ditty in which Phillipa Soo as Eliza fast-forwards from her first encounter with Alexander through to their wedding. That same sequence of events is replayed to brilliant effect in "Satisfied," sung by the divine Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, who describes her meeting of the minds and instant attraction to Alexander, and what it cost her to step away and leave him to her adored sister Eliza.

Audiences seeing this cast for the first time will be bowled over by the depth of the performances, notably so with Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, the politically ambitious also-ran who feels the hand of Hamilton in his every failure. Odom never allows him to become the mere villain of the piece. Instead, he seems continually drawn to Alexander, finding kinship in a fellow orphan and discovering the transformative joys of fatherhood at the same time in the lovely "Dear Theodosia," in which both men sing sweetly of building a foundation — for their country and their children.

Odom nails the anguish of a decent man overcome by frustration and bitterness, expressed most powerfully in one of the show's standout numbers, "Wait for It," performed predominantly with Burr alone onstage.

Daveed Diggs' slyly playful work as the Marquis de Lafayette and the dandyish Thomas Jefferson make him a perennial audience favorite, as is Jonathan Groff, bringing delicious deadpan timing to King George's snippy taunt to the rebellious Americans, "You'll Be Back." Is there a funnier lyric in contemporary musical theater than "I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love?" Christopher Jackson's imposing physical presence and rich baritone bring effortless authority to George Washington, planting the seeds of Burr's resentment when he passes Burr over and chooses Hamilton as his "Right Hand Man."

It's easy to see why the show has received such a warm embrace from American history teachers, given its accessible reassembly of the building blocks of the nation as well as its skill at illustrating the dirty machinations of the political arena and the complexities of a financial system built on credit.

The move into more sorrowful territory in Act II plays exceedingly well on film, where closer access to the characters immerses us directly in their pain. This is especially true when Alexander's infidelity comes to light. Soo has the voice of an angel, and when Eliza sings "Burn," the searing hurt of her husband's betrayal gives way to anger that rips your heart out. This is followed by the crushing weight of a devastating loss, which leads into the show's most beautiful song, "It's Quiet Uptown." The staging here, with the divided couple brought back together by grief, their reconciliation overseen by Angelica, is exquisite. No matter how many times I see this song performed, remaining dry-eyed seems "unimaginable."

While there will be no shortage of Hamilton devotees lining up for repeat viewings of this film, what's most exciting is the potential for discovery by audiences new to its masterful storytelling and eclectic musical vernacular.  

The mix of old-school Broadway with the syncopated urgency of rap and hip-hop, sprinklings of jazz, R&B and even Beatles-esque pop makes this one of the most innovative musical scores in decades, sampling from a wide range of sources that include Rodgers and Hammerstein, Biggie Smalls, Gilbert and Sullivan, Grandmaster Flash and Mobb Deep. Giving it all seamless cohesion are the exhilarating orchestrations of musical director Alex Lacamoire and some of the most intoxicating vocal arrangements you'll ever hear. "Say no to this?" No way.

Production company: RadicalMedia
Distributor: Disney+
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo, Carleigh Bettiol, Ariana DeBose, Hope Easterbrook, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Elizabeth Judd, Jon Rua, Austin Smith, Seth Stewart, Ephraim Sykes
Director: Thomas Kail
Book, music and lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by the biography Alexander Hamitlon, by Ron Chernow
Producers: Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeffrey Seller
Executive producers: Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman
Original stage director: Thomas Kail
Original stage producers: Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, The Public Theater
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Editor: Jonah Moran
Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
Music supervisor and orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire
Arrangements: Alex Lacamoire, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Bethany Knox

Rated PG-13, 162 minutes