Fans will adore it, and the uninitiated will find the hype more than deserved
Very little about 2020 feels in any way normal, right?
What is very likely to be the movie event of this year will be taking place not in theaters, but in homes across America this weekend.
Your living room will be “the room where it happens.”
The filmed version of the Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton” would have been a guaranteed box-office smash, enough of a sure-thing that Disney shelled out $75 million to bring it to its Disney+ streaming service. And, business dealings with massive corporate media giants aside, we can all be grateful they did. “Hamilton” is the movie of this moment, and it couldn’t be a more welcome experience on several levels.
First, I’ll warn you, I'm a "Hamilton" first-timer who entered into the screening only with the knowledge that seeped in via mainstream culture. I’m not versed in musical theater, and I don’t often like film musical adaptations that only play if you know the source material.
If this was a normal year, my plus-one for a press screening would have been in high demand among my friends, although it definitely would have gone to the friend who actually saw one of the final performances of the original Broadway cast when it was the most sought-after ticket in the world. I don’t have that fan perspective. I’ve given the cast recording album a couple of spins over the year. That’s about it.
So what did this first-timer, non-musical fan think of “Hamilton”? I absolutely loved it. All the hype suddenly seemed to almost undersell it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, in addition to starring in the title role, has famously described “Hamilton” as a “story of America then told by America now.” And in the five years since its release, events have given the film new layers.
Exploring Alexander Hamilton’s roles in the Revolutionary War, the founding of the U.S. Treasury and the Federalist Papers never sounded like the stuff of musical magic. But when the history lesson comes in the form of a spirited collection of songs drawing deeply from hip-hop? When Founding Fathers like Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are all portrayed by Black and brown actors?
You know you aren’t just getting a history lesson. You’re getting a lesson in all the ways we have failed to live up to optimism of this experiment in democracy, in a way that is somehow uplifting and energizing.
The filmed version of “Hamilton” (directed by Thomas Kail, who also directed the original stage run) isn’t a Hollywood production. It was shot during four Broadway performances in 2016. So Kail’s biggest decision was how to film and present it, and his choice feels like the right one.
It’s a front-row view few got to experience. Kail pulls wide shots to let you take in the glory of the choreography and the beauty of the light design. But more often than not, he comes in tighter on his performers, allowing the audience to see the nuance in stage performances that have to be big enough to play to the back of the room. This perspective also never shows the live audience, but when they rip into applause after nearly every number, the goosebumps come.
“Hamilton” also brings all of the feeling of a live performance in a time when many of us would do anything to be able to experience that right now.
Just one viewing of the “Hamilton” film, and I get it. The hype. The praise for Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. and Phillipa Soo and Daveed Diggs (my absolute favorite because I’ve loved his rap act clipping.) and Jonathan Groff (and his spitting).
But this is more of a testament to Miranda’s genius than a work of great filmmaking, a wise decision to let the material speak for itself.
And in this moment especially, “Hamilton” speaks loud and clear.