Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).
The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.
It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.
Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.
Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.
As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.
The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.
At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.
Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.
You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.
That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.
Hamilton is available on Disney+ now. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.