'Hamilton's America': TV Review | NYFF 2016

Hamilton’s America - Still - H - 2016
Courtesy of New York Film Festival
Not quite in the room where it happens, but pretty close.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop historical smash gets in-depth making-of treatment in this PBS 'Great Performances' doc, featuring extensive footage of the show's original Broadway cast.

Couldn't score a ticket to the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton before its ecstatically received original cast began to disband in July and move on to other projects? Then the PBS documentary special, Hamilton's America — premiering at the New York Film Festival ahead of its Oct. 21 airdate as the season kickoff to the broadcaster's sixth annual Arts Fall Festival — is a tasty sampler of what you missed. It's also a testament to the dazzling creativity and historical curiosity that went into writer-composer-performer Lin-Manuel Miranda's instant cultural landmark, as well as a solid indication of why this musical juggernaut will continue to draw sellout crowds for years to come.

Following its Public Theater premiere in February 2015, the show moved to Broadway in July that same year, where it has grossed a phenomenal $112 million to date. A Chicago production is currently in previews, a touring company will launch with extended runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles early next year and a London staging is set to follow. That means the show will become more widely accessible than it has been in New York, where ticket prices have soared into the thousands on the resale market. But there's a unique thrill in watching the original team inhabit characters they helped to create, boldly redefining American history in multicultural contemporary terms.

Beyond that, director Alex Horwitz's densely packed 84-minute close-up digs deep into the ways in which the musical has rescued its subject, Alexander Hamilton, from relative obscurity, reaffirming his legacy as the principal architect of the American economic model that remains in place today. Using sharp graphic animations that draw on period etchings, the film offers as much fodder for history and political students as it does for theater and music fans.

It may seem a dubious honor to many of us when former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson calls Hamilton "the patron saint of Wall Street." But it's also fitting in a show that embraces the paradoxes of Founding Fathers whose flawed humanity doesn't negate their enormous contributions to nation-building. The irony of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being both slaveholders and champions of freedom comes under considerable scrutiny. Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton, makes the provocative but pertinent comparison that the racist or homophobic lyrical content in the work of certain rap artists doesn't make them any less brilliant.

Significant attention is given to the show's central relationship, between Hamilton (originally played by Miranda) and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), and the process by which that friendship fractured into bitter rivalry. One of the reasons Hamilton has been such a hit is its empathetic gaze; the show refuses to see just one side of a character. Burr blurts out the mother of all plot spoilers in the production's first three minutes when he confesses in the title song, "I'm the damn fool that shot him." That would make him a conventional villain in other hands. But the genius of Hamilton, as Odom points out, is the way it illustrates how "we're all more than our worst acts on our worst days."

The film is laced with illuminating commentary from Miranda and his collaborators; from Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book was the big fat vacation read that started Miranda drawing lines in the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr that echo those of rap adversaries Tupac and Biggie; from historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Joanne Freeman; and from politicians pointing up the significance of Hamilton's work, among them Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan.

That kind of bipartisan participation alone makes Hamilton's America an interesting anomaly in such a divided election year. Also relevant to the current political climate are comments from the Hamilton creator's father Luis Miranda, a political consultant who came to New York from Puerto Rico at 18. "In my experience, immigrants are never the lazy, stupid ones," he says. "They're the smart, hard-working ones because they have to work so much harder to make sense of their reality and succeed in that reality."

That applies to Hamilton himself, who literally wrote his way out of humble circumstances to become one of the most powerful figures in America's transformative infancy. "I know this guy," says Lin-Manuel Miranda with pride. "I'm just playing my dad."

The film traces the now widely documented roots of Hamilton, starting when the title song — first heard at a 2009 White House evening of spoken-word performances — went viral, convincing Miranda he had the seed for a show. Theater geeks will savor insights into the process by which complex narrative songs are built; it's fascinating to hear Miranda discuss the challenges of musicals that attempt to wrestle with history, exchanging views on the subject with two of his inspirations, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Their collaborations on Assassins, about attempts on the lives of U.S. presidents through history; and Pacific Overtures, about the Westernization of Japan, were among the models drawn from and reinvented by Miranda.

Horwitz and editor Brett Mason deftly interweave detailed consideration of the role of key songs in Hamilton with performance clips that illustrate those points, both from Broadway and from a White House educational initiative earlier this year, where the cast performed selections for a group of students. One of the latter clips, in which Christopher Jackson as Washington sings "One Last Time," marking the character's exit from political life, is as powerful as any of the stage sequences, despite being accompanied by only a handful of musicians.

While every Hamilton fan has different favorite numbers, the disappointing choice not to include "Satisfied," sung by Renee Elise Goldsberry as Hamilton's sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, or "It's Quiet Uptown," sung by Hamilton and his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) in the shattered aftermath of their eldest son's death, does seem to leapfrog over two of the show's defining moments. And critics who have charged (unfairly) that the female roles remain marginalized in a musical celebrating diversity may quibble about the limited time dedicated here to the women's songs.

But glimpses of the craft that went into numbers including "Alexander Hamilton," "My Shot," "You'll Be Back," "Wait for It," "Yorktown," "What'd I Miss" and "The Room Where It Happens" give an ample idea of the musical's shape and of the singular vitality it harnesses to make dusty history so exciting and emotionally charged. What's more surprising, however, is the extent to which this lively and engaging film goes beyond chronicling the birth of a milestone musical. Horwitz's focus is no less on the lasting impact of the historical figures onstage on contemporary American life.

"I am aware that musical theater does not get off the arts page very often, and here we are," marvels Miranda, who despite being deluged with awards and acclaim remains a grounded and engaging guide. Watching him and other key cast visit national sites where their characters rewrote history is sure to stoke Hamilton fans while also drafting plenty of fresh converts.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Special Events)
Airdate: Friday, Oct. 21, 9 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)
Production companies: RadicalMedia, in association with Thirteen Productions for WNET
With: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, Jonathan Groff, Okierete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ron Chernow, Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire, Andy Blankenbuehler, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Paul Ryan, Elizabeth Warren, Hank Paulson, Timothy Geithner, Amir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Jimmy Fallon, John Weidman, Stephen Sondheim, Nas, Luis Miranda, Laura Bush, Joanne Freeman, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jeffrey Seller, Oskar Eustis, Maria Bartiromo
Director: Alex Horwitz
Producers: Nicole Pusateri, Alex Horwitz
Executive producers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeffrey Seller, Dave Sirulnick, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes
Director of photography: Bryant Fisher
Editor: Brett Mason

Not rated, 84 minutes