Cinephilia

Review: Hamilton (The Movie)

In March of 2015, I moved back to Chicago from New York. That was right about the time a new musical production about an (until then) obscure founding father was also making a move, from its initial run off-Broadway at the Public Theater to the Richard Rogers Theater on the Great White Way. For those in the know, the buzz was already high on this one—buzz that was soon to break out to not only theatergoers in general but far, far beyond that, too.

The show, of course, was Hamilton, the blockbuster new musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) that reimagines first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s life during the American Revolution with hip hop tracks and a cast almost entirely made up of people of color. I entered the ticket lottery as often as I could before I left Manhattan, but I never won one of the coveted, limited seats. So I planned well in advance and built a trip back to the Big Apple around a single, orchestra-level ticket I snagged for a March, 2016 performance featuring Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr, Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry and the rest of the Original Broadway Cast that would go on to win 11 Tony Awards in June of that same year.

Also in June, 2016, a film crew set up the Richard Rogers Theater with a crane camera and the other trappings required to film the landmark production. The resulting film was originally intended to hit the big screen in October 2021 through Miranda’s new distribution partner, Disney Studios. Instead, with a global pandemic closing Broadway through at least the end of 2020 and Disney’s new streaming service Disney+ in households across the country, the filmed version of Hamilton appropriately arrived on the platform on Friday, July 3, perhaps the brightest spot in an otherwise somber Independence Day weekend.

Bringing a stage musical to the screen can take one of two approaches. There’s adapting the production entirely, re-staging it as a live-action film production (see: Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story; or the disastrous attempt at reimagining Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats). The other option—the one employed here—is to simply film the production as it is performed on stage, allowing the viewer to simultaneously feel as though they’re sitting in the theater while offering a closeness to the the performances no balcony seat could ever glimpse. “Simply,” of course, is itself an oversimplification; Hamilton‘s original director Thomas Kail also directs this filmed version, and the two formats require entirely different priorities and considerations. Just like stage actors must project to the rafters and emote broadly for the cheap seats, a stage director must build a tableau, a production that always has the wide-lens view in mind, every corner of the stage visible to the live audience.

Film requires something different, a more subtle touch from performers and a nuanced eye from a director, one that understands when and how to use the camera to accurately capture a moment. From that stage-right seat at the Richard Rogers in 2016, my view was static, Miranda and his co-stars just feet from me during scenes that brought them downstage. This filmed version gets the benefit of multiple cameras capturing the production from multiple angles (actually, two performances were filmed, edited together to create this final, streaming version); the result is a musical movie that evolves a larger-than-life cultural phenomenon into something much more personal and approachable. From your living room, your laptop or—if you must—your phone, now Hamilton is, gloriously, vibrantly, urgently yours.

Since what is filmed is a show that’s been reviewed ad nauseum (let us never forget Ben Brantley‘s “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses…to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show…”), revisiting everything from the sharp lyrics (by Miranda) to the smart costumes (by Paul Tazewell) and inventive staging (by David Korins) seems redundant. All the masterful craftsmanship of the show comes through beautifully in the film, details heightened to a new awareness thanks to the camera’s access and a healthy use of close-ups. If there’s anything to nit-pick here, it’s perhaps an over-use of the close-up, as some of the film’s best moments (“Immigrants, we get the job done!”) feel smaller than they do in the theater, shown as they are in a tighter shot than what one sees when the entire stage is in view. At the Richard Rogers, Phillipa Soo’s Burn, a solo lament delivered as she realizes that her husband has been unfaithful (and has told the world about it) is breathtaking, a woman alone on a great big stage, just her and her smoldering betrayal. The number, no less remarkable on screen—Soo’s performance remains vulnerable and fierce—lands ever-so-slightly differently when we are zoomed in on the heartbreak evident on her face. Not better, not worse—just different.

Odom, Diggs and Goldsberry all won Tonys for their performances (Miranda and Soo, as well as Chris Jackson (as Washington) and Jonathan Groff (as King George) were also nominated), and not a single ounce of their energy is lost in translation here. From Odom’s quiet frustration in “Wait for It” to Goldsberry’s unrequited love in “Satisfied” to Jackson’s show-stopping “Teach Them How to Say Goodbye” (truly, you will need a moment to recover from this one), this filmed version manages to brilliantly capture what is otherwise the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing these moments on stage. Driven by the strong performances and unforgettable music, Hamilton is already something nostalgic, launched as it was during a different administration, a different time for the nation whose history it retells. For those who already know the show well, the movie offers a chance to relive the familiar and revisit what we originally fell in love with; for those just getting their chance to experience it, it’s sure to be a thrilling discovery in a more egalitarian format than pricey Broadway tickets. Either way, it’s nothing short of a potent elixir for what ails us during these uncertain times, where so much is going wrong and so many are fighting for what’s right.

It’s undeniable that there’s a massive void in our culture with live theater no longer an option for the foreseeable future (not to mention an industry of performers and production crews devastatingly out of work). Hamilton (the film) isn’t exactly like seeing the original rousing, inspiring show on stage (in the “room where it happens,” ahem). Like seeing a new movie in a cinema full of an audience, nothing can (or should) replace that shared experience. In this moment, however, as our nation continues to strive for “a more perfect union”—one that is perhaps further away than ever in recent memory—Hamilton arrives in our homes to remind us of what we were capable of at our nation’s founding, and what we may be capable of yet.

Hamilton is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.

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