“So much of what ‘Hamilton’ is about is how history remembers and how that changes over time.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda in the introduction to the filmed version of “Hamilton.”
The brilliance translates beautifully.
It would be impossible for “Hamilton” the movie to replicate the experience of seeing one of the greatest of all musicals in a live theatrical setting, but the filmed version of the Broadway sensation makes for immersive, exhilarating, magnificent cinema, almost sure to thrill first-time viewers as well as diehard fanatics who have seen the stage production once or twice or a dozen times.
A little backstage info before we dive into the material itself. Per the New York Times, “Hamilton” the film was shot over a three-day period in June 2016, just before creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and other key performers were to depart the cast. Thomas Kail, who directed the stage production as well as this movie, placed some 100 microphones and installed nine cameras in the Richard Rodgers Theater, seven of which were hidden by drapes.
The movie we see comes across as a seamless, real-time capture of a single show, but it actually encapsulates two separate performances, as well as some sequences that were shot sans audience, with cameras onstage to capture close-ups and overhead shots. The technical wizardry is sensational, as is the lush and vibrant sound, the lighting and production design. A great-looking Broadway play has become a great-looking movie.
“Hamilton” was originally scheduled for an Oct. 15, 2021, theatrical release, but last month it was announced it would be streamed on Disney+ starting on July 3. (The timing is even more bittersweet but apt, given it was announced on Monday the Broadway shutdown will extend through the end of this year.)
After brief, Zoom-like comments from Miranda and Kail, we’re taken inside the Richard Rodgers Theater, and soon Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr is singing:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
And off we go on a rousing historical adventure about the life and times of one Alexander Hamilton (Miranda), a great mind and fierce warrior for freedom and social justice who always assumes he’s the “smartest in the room,” and is probably right, though as Burr eventually cautions, that hubris “may be your doom.”
Not that anything will stop the young and greatly ambitious Hamilton, who will not throw away his shot and sings:
A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile, Britain keeps s------ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around, runs a spending spree
He ain’t never gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century…
Even with a running time of 2 hours, 41 minutes (including the intros, a one-minute Intermission, and the closing credits featuring “My Shot [Rise Up Remix]” by the Roots featuring Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz & Nate Ruess), “Hamilton” is a meticulously streamlined vehicle, never stalling or taking unnecessary detours. With director of photography Declan Quinn providing angles that make us feel as if we’re in the balcony, then slightly off to the side, then behind the performers, occasionally even overhead, we can see every sweat bead on the actors’ faces as they perform physically demanding song-and-dance numbers while wearing vibrant but surely heavy period-piece costumes.
One of the coolest features of the production is a spinning circle of wood in the center of the stage, with a separate circle around THAT circle. The timing of the actors (most of whom had performed their roles hundreds of times by the time the cameras were brought in) is perfect as they maneuver in and out of the rotating circles (which are used sparingly so as not to overdo the technique) and even move set furniture around as they segue from one number to the next.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose amazing mind is responsible for this timeless classic, is transcendent as the title character — but his performance is no less impressive than a half-dozen others, including Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr; Daveed Diggs in a dual role as the heroic French freedom fighter Lafayette and the preening Thomas Jefferson, portrayed as a political opportunist and narcissistic dandy who schemes against Hamilton; Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s loyal and long-suffering wife, Eliza; Renee Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s sister, Angelica, who sets aside her own love for Alexander so her sister can be happy, and as comic relief, Jonathan Groff as King George III, who scoffs at those revolutionary Americans as well as his own troops from across the pond.
It feels as if every other number in “Hamilton” is a show-stopper, from the famous “My Shot” to “The Story of Tonight” to “Helpless” (a showcase for the angelic and powerful female voices in the cast) to “Ten Duel Commandments” to the heartbreaking and glorious finale, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Touching on everything from blind ambition to sacrificing oneself for a greater cause to political scandals to the lessons of history, “Hamilton” is a revolutionary masterwork about a great revolution.