Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Monthly Review of July 2020

Man, 2020 is non-stop!

If you’ve come here from a tweet or email link, we’re three sentences in and had three Hamilton references already. Well, I did draft about half-a-dozen Hamilton-related titles for this review, so a few more may sneak in yet. While I devote my energies to thinking of some, let’s get on with the usual business…


#156 The Ipcress File (1965)
#157 Hamilton (2020)
#158 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
#159 A Dog’s Will (2000), aka O Auto da Compadecida
#159a David Lynch Cooks Quinoa (2007)
#160 Make Mine Music (1946)
#161 Chariots of Fire (1981)
#162 The Old Guard (2020)
#163 Palm Springs (2020)
#164 Greyhound (2020)
#165 The Scorpion King (2002)
#166 Dangal (2016)
#167 The Lighthouse (2019)
#168 Melody Time (1948)
#169 Fun & Fancy Free (1947)
#170 Uncut Gems (2019)
#171 Lady Bird (2017)
#172 Safety Last! (1923)
#173 Love on a Leash (2011)
#174 The Wolf’s Call (2019), aka Le chant du loup
#175 Hunter Killer (2018)
#176 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
#177 Le Mans ’66 (2019), aka Ford v Ferrari
#178 Bloodshot (2020)
#179 Der Hund von Baskerville (1914), aka The Hound of the Baskervilles
#180 The French Connection (1971)
#181 Venom (2018)
#182 Spaceship Earth (2020)
#183 Clueless (1995)
#184 Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
Hamilton

Palm Springs

Safety Last!

Spaceship Earth

.


  • I watched 29 new feature films in July.
  • That makes it my third best month of 2020; but, more impressively, it’s also my sixth best month ever — out of 163 months, that puts it in the top 4%.
  • It’s also my fifth month in a row with over 20 films, which is my second-longest run of 20+ months, right behind the six months from February to July 2018.
  • It also finally pulls July’s all-time average up above 10.0. I’ve been looking to get all the months’ averages up that high for years, and July has been the real hold-out (it didn’t help that in 2009 its total was 0). In fact, it’s now 11.0, meaning all months are at 11+ except for November — but having them all above 10 is fine; I’m not going to actively try to pull them up anymore.
  • In terms of other averages, it bests both the average for 2020 to date (previously 25.8, now 26.3) and the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 17.3, now 19.3).
  • #184 is the furthest I’ve reached by the end of July, beating the next best by 11 films. In fact, compared to my worst-ever year (2009), I’m 146 ahead.
  • It also means I’ve already passed 2017’s final total, guaranteeing 2020 an all-time rank of at least third. With five months of the year left, I only need to watch 18 more films for second — that seems all but guaranteed, though never say never. For first place it’s 79 more, an average of 16 a month — at my current rate, eminently plausible; but last year I watched 48 films in that timespan, so (again) never say never.
  • Back in April, I identified the handful of years from which I’d never seen a feature film. I crossed off two more of those this month, thanks to Safety Last! for 1923 and Der Hund von Baskerville for 1914. That just leaves 1912 and 1915
  • And talking of completing years, Lady Bird and Le Mans ’66 mean I’ve completed the Oscar Best Picture nominees from 2018 and 2020, respectively. I just need one more (Vice from 2019) to complete the last five years. I was obviously less circumspect earlier in the decade, though, because to complete back to 2011 I need a further ten films
  • This month’s Blindspot film: an archetypal ’70s crime thriller with a noir vibe, The French Connection — and it’s as good as that sounds. Plus one from my overflow list, ’60s anti-Bond spy thriller The Ipcress File — which, sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by (primarily because I expect to adore it, though; it is very good).
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Lighthouse.



The 62nd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Debate may have raged in some places about whether it should count as a film or not, but clearly I’m going with “does count”, and therefore I get to declare Hamilton may favourite of the month. It’s also currently the 26th best film of all time on IMDb’s top list, so I’m clearly not alone.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I watched three submarine-related movies this month: Greyhound because it was new, but that gave me an itch to watch a ‘proper’ submarine movie, and French thriller The Wolf’s Call was already on my watchlist, and that was so enjoyable that I still fancied more after that, so I turned to Hunter Killer — which I shouldn’t have, because it’s awful.

Worst Understanding of Geography of the Month
We turn again to Hunter Killer for an entertaining bit of “American filmmakers not understanding foreign geography”. Gerard Butler’s submarine captain is picked up by helicopter while on a hunting holiday in the Scottish highlands, to take him to his sub at the naval docks in Faslane — about 80 miles away. We next see him at Faslane, where his XO asks how was his trip in from Portsmouth, another major naval port in the UK. So, if that’s right, he went from the highlands to Portsmouth and then to Faslane — a 1,000-mile round trip. I guess no one on that film bothered to look at a map…

Best Song Not in Hamilton of the Month
Apologies to the four Disney musicals that I watched, plus any original songs cropping up in any of the other films I watched, but not much can beat the little ditties sung by the canine hero of Love on a Leash. “King of the castle! / King of the castle that’s also a dog / And lives in a house that is green. / What is that about?” Lin-Manuel Miranda must be quaking in his boots.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
One of the most widely-popular cultural phenomena of our time, finally made available to a wide audience of both die-hard fans and the curious, and my review has had almost the whole month to accumulate hits. Yes, entirely predictably (to the extent that I wrote this blurb on the 5th and haven’t touched a word of it), July’s most-viewed new post was Hamilton.

That said, The Old Guard ended up coming pretty close; and they were both beaten by last month’s #1, my review of Netflix’s Eurovision movie, which is on track to be my most popular film review of 2020 (though who knows what the rest of the year will bring…)



My Rewatchathon continues to be a month ahead of pace, with #33 being where I should’ve reached by the end of August.

#31 The Princess Bride (1987)
#32 Hamilton (2020)
#33 The Woman in Green (1945)

Regular readers will know I’m not a huge re-watcher (hence the Rewatchathon) — if I watch a film again within about five years I consider it “soon” — and yet here I am watching Hamilton twice in a month. Well, you put it on just to watch a bit and then you can’t stop. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up in 2020’s Rewatchathon again yet…

I’ve rewatched The Princess Bride twice now without adding it to my “Guide To” series. It’s not like I haven’t got a big enough backlog anyway, right? I expect I’ll cover it someday. For now, I naturally posted some thoughts on Letterboxd after my most recent viewing.

The Woman in Green continues my rewatch of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as I’d remembered — it has some great ideas and good sequences, but it somehow doesn’t gel as well as it should on this viewing. Nonetheless, there’s enough to admire that I still rate it pretty highly, including Henry Daniell as the series’ best Moriarty.


Cinemas may still be mostly closed, and consequently there’s a shortage of new releases, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the streamers pumping out content, both new exclusives and archive titles (indeed, that’s probably why they are). Top of the pops for brand-new stuff this month was a Bollywood film, Dil Bechara, which catapulted to the top of the IMDb Top 250 chart thanks to eager fans rating it highly. The algorithm kicked in and it plummeted right back off it again, but in terms of raw numbers it’s still right up there. It’s streaming free on Hotstar if you want to see if it lives up to the fuss.

As I said, the regular streamers piled on the content this month, more so Amazon than Netflix, with originals like How to Build a Girl and Honey Boy, the subscription debuts of theatrical films like Midway and Knives Out, and archive titles like 1947 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives and 1985 contender The Killing Fields They also briefly had the new Charlie’s Angels, for about 24 hours before someone realised the mistake — it was due on Sky Cinema / Now TV about a week later. Perhaps that means it’ll be coming to Amazon eventually; perhaps someone just pressed the wrong button. Also catching my eye was The Mask of Zorro in 4K. That came out on disc in the US back in May, but we haven’t been so lucky. I hope that changes, because it’s a great film and the new transfer looks far superior to the old Blu-ray, but until then I might just watch it on Amazon. They also have the sequel, The Legend of Zorro, also in 4K, which hasn’t been treated to a disc release anywhere, probably because of it’s poor reputation. I don’t think I’ve seen it since the cinema in 2005 (even though I own it on DVD), so it’s due a revisit.

Amazon have also had a load more of their discounted-for-Prime-members rentals recently, so I’ve stocked up on the likes of The Assistant, Bad Boys for Life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Color Out of Space, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. All of those should feature in August’s viewing. I’ve also been tempted to splash the cash on plenty of Blu-rays, thanks to endless sales and offers. Barnes & Noble aren’t currently shipping to the UK, so I’ve missed out on their biannual Criterion sale, but I was so set for it that I forked out a bit more to get the titles from Amazon US (who don’t price match the sale, but get pretty close). Stock issues mean that order hasn’t even dispatched yet, so hopefully next month. Sales that have tempted me and have arrived include from Arrow (The Andromeda Strain, Aniara, Crime and Punishment, Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, and Zardoz), HMV’s Premium Collection (two more Hitchcocks, I Confess and The Wrong Man, plus Key Largo, The Thing from Another World, To Have and Have Not, and Wait Until Dark), and Zoom (4K upgrades for Arrival, The Revenant, and Split). And talking of things to 4K, films to rewatch, and imports, I snagged the US 4K release of Parasite. I doubt we’re going to get treated to that in the UK, and the recently-announced Criterion release won’t be 4K. I might still get it for the special features, though.

And if that wasn’t enough, I also picked up some new releases, including Master of Cinema’s set of three Edgar Allen Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi, those being The Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Black Cat, which is noteworthy for being the fifth adaptation of that short story that I own (and I haven’t watched any of them!)


Tenet.

Or maybe not. Who knows what state we’ll be in by the time that’s due at the end of the month?

The Past Month on TV #60

I suppose lockdown is officially over now, for good or ill, but we begin this month’s TV review by reliving those heady days…

Staged  Series 1
StagedThis filmed-in-lockdown comedy stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen as they attempt to rehearse a play over the internet, the goal being they’ll be ready to put it on as soon as theatres reopen. Naturally, there’s much more to it than two actors practising a play — indeed, I’m not sure they ever actually get round to any proper rehearsing. Conflicts abound, both broadly relatable (Sheen is blackmailed into helping look after his elderly neighbour, but develops genuine concern for her) and actorly (a running debate/gag about which of the pair should get top billing), and there are a couple of big-name surprise cameos along the way (no spoilers — the surprises are worth it). With all episodes in the 15- to 20-minute range, the series is hardly a big time commitment (it runs well under two hours in total), but it’s well worth it and consistently funny. Indeed, I wish there was going to be more. Well, a second lockdown isn’t out of the question yet, is it…

Lockdown may be over, but Staged is still available on iPlayer.

Hamilton’s America
Hamilton's AmericaThis documentary first aired back in 2016, in the wake of Hamilton’s success on stage. I’m not sure if it’s ever been screened in the UK, but I tracked down a copy after watching Hamilton on Disney+. So, firstly, I’m glad I didn’t watch this before seeing the film — I feel like it would’ve somehow ruined, or at least tarnished, the experience of seeing the full production, because this contains extensive-but-far-from-complete clips from the show. I guess, back in 2016, when the only way to actually see Hamilton was by securing hard-to-come-by, insanely-expensive Broadway tickets, getting to see those clips was probably great for fans.

Aside from that, the documentary is part making-of (it follows lyricist, composer, and leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda starting in 2014, when he’s writing the musical with an impending rehearsal deadline, and then continues on to cover the show’s opening and success) and part history lesson (various cast members and experts discuss the real events and visit relevant historical locations to learn more about their characters). Rather than half-arse either of these aspects, the feature-length running time allows the doc to offer genuine insights into both. For just one example, there’s a bit where they discuss the issue of the Founding Fathers being slave owners, and although it’s only a couple of minutes long, it contains more intelligent commentary than the entire bloody social media debate about it that the film’s release provoked.

It’s a real shame this isn’t on Disney+ to accompany the film, because I think a lot of people who’ve enjoyed that would enjoy this as a chaser. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can track it down.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 9-10
Star Trek: PicardI started this when it began in January, and have been slowly trekking through it ever since — it’s taken me six whole months to get through just ten episodes. That’s a commentary in itself as to what I thought of it, I suppose, though if you asked me I’d say it’s “not bad”.

From what I’ve seen of other people’s reactions, Picard seems to be a real “love it or hate it” show. A lot of people I read and/or whose opinion I respect either can’t stand it or find it thoroughly mediocre, but there are definitely people out there — more than an odd handful, apparently — who think it’s fantastic. As often seems to be the case with something so divisive, I find myself somewhere in the middle. After a rocky start (the first three episodes should’ve been condensed into one feature-length opener, at most), I felt the series settled down reasonably well, with a couple of almost-standalone episodes of varying quality eventually giving way entirely to its arc plot, which from then was executed with a relative consistency of pace — a major problem with many “one long story” streaming series nowadays. The quality of the dialogue and acting remained somewhat turbulent, which perhaps belies the franchise’s roots as predating “prestige TV” — what’s acceptable for Star Trek doesn’t necessarily wash with the modern sophisticated non-die-hard-fan viewer.

That said, for every scene or plot development that worked well, there was something truly ridiculous or implausible just around the corner, with the finale being one of the worst offenders. Some might say “it’s sci-fi — implausible is its stock in trade”, but even sci-fi has rules, and Picard seemed to merrily flout them, often in the name of fan service. And that’s why I end up somewhere in the middle, because overall I thought it was a solid-enough space adventure, undermined by frequent blips in quality and sense. I believe the writing team is undergoing some significant changes ahead of the already-commissioned second season, so maybe they’ll iron out the kinks.

Fleabag
Fleabag (the play)I’ve never got round to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s much-acclaimed sitcom, but, during lockdown, Amazon offered the original one-woman-show stage version (recorded last year during a live cinema broadcast) as a charity rental, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. My reaction was… muted, to be honest. I can certainly see how it pushes at boundaries, both of the depiction of women in fiction and of taste in general, and for that reason it’s significant, but I only found it sporadically funny, which makes it somewhat unsatisfying as a comedy. Also, I wasn’t expecting it to get so dark — if you’re a lover of small furry animals, beware.

James Acaster: Repertoire
James Acaster: RepertoireAnother filmed stage comedy that left me somewhat underwhelmed. This is more straightforward stand-up, however, and as that it was more often amusing — whether you find Acaster’s “wacky” style (his word) to your taste will dictate exactly how funny. For me, he’s not the most consistently hilarious standup I’ve seen, but provoked laughs regularly enough. The real selling point here, however, is that it’s a four-parter. Ever heard of a multi-part stand-up gig before? Me either. These aren’t just four entirely independent gigs box-set-ed up either, but were conceived and shot as four connected sets.

Despite that high-concept pitch, it turns out the four-part structure isn’t particularly clever after all. The cross-episode callbacks are sometimes good and clever, but sometimes just elicit recognition (accompanied by an “I got that reference!” laugh from the audience). It’s not anything unique to the four-part structure — plenty of other comedians structure their standalone shows in the same way. The only differences are (a) if you watch it in four sittings then some of the callback are to a different episode rather than something earlier in the same set, and (b) it’s three-and-a-half hours of material, all of which were all performed on the same day, which is a remarkable feat. Otherwise, the connectivity is basically limited to episode 4 ending in such a way as to imply it’s ‘set’ before episode 1, including a cleverly staged final shot. But, unless I missed something, the other episodes don’t line up in such a way that 2 must follow 3 and 4 must follow 3, so it doesn’t create some kind of ouroboros loop, which I guess was the kind of structural inventiveness I was looking for.

Overall, Acaster is whimsically amusing — not my favourite standup, but solid with some excellent bits — and the sheer volume of material at a sustained quality level is impressive. But I don’t buy that this miniseries structure is innovative In any way except volume. And I can’t help but wonder if, had he condensed these 205 minutes into a normal 60- to 90-minute set, it might’ve felt like a higher density of pure gold.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
After a few months spent scraping the bottom of what the original Twilight Zone has to offer, it’s back to the cream of the crop. (At this point you may be wondering “how many episodes can he reasonably class as ‘the best’?!” My final answer is: the top third. Yes, that’s quite a broad definition, but I like to be generous. For what it’s worth, today’s selection gets me to 20.5% on my consensus ranking.)

Where is Everybody?This month’s selection begins at the very beginning: the first-ever Twilight Zone episode, Where is Everybody? The title alone is a pretty succinct pitch of the episode’s theme, and the episode is as one-note as its premise. This is an exciting story in which a bloke… gets himself coffee, and… talks to a mannequin, and… tries to phone the operator but can’t get through, and… has an ice cream, and… yeeeaaah. The twist ending isn’t much cop either, 50% “it was all a dream”, 50% a thin moral about humans’ need for companionship. It could’ve been better: Rod Serling’s original pitch for episode one was a tale about a society where people were executed when they turned 60, which I think is a better concept, but it was deemed too depressing (imagine what they would’ve made of Logan’s Run, where the executions happen at 30!) That said, “everybody’s gone” is a reasonable starting idea, but the episode needs (a) more places to go with it, and (b) a more interesting reveal. (See The Quiet Earth for essentially the same premise being more thoroughly explored.)

Next is one of the very few Twilight Zone episodes that doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantastical element (apparently there are only four such instalments). The Silence concerns a wager between an old rich dude and a talkative guy at his club: if the latter can manage to stay silent for a whole year (while under constant observation, natch), the former will pay him $500,000 (equivalent to over $4 million in today’s money). What the episode really asks is how far would — could; should — you go to win (or keep) half-a-million dollars? Whatever your answer, the episode gives us a very dark version, primarily because of the ending — in traditional TZ fashion, there’s a twist (or two) and no one comes out of it well. Although it’s less allegorical than the series’ usual fantastical episodes, there’s no less of a lesson to be learned.

Conversely, some Twilight Zone episodes feel like a concept without a plot, and The Odyssey of Flight 33 is one of them. It concerns a transatlantic flight that finds itself in some weird midair phenomena, and to say where it goes would be to spoil the only card this episode has up its sleeve — as Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste puts it, the episode is “a light sci-fi rollercoaster ride” without “a clear sociocultural theme or complex existential narrative”. To be less kind, it’s a nice idea but the story doesn’t have anywhere to go with it — it doesn’t even end, just sort of peters out. Conversely, Matt Singer at ScreenCrush argues the ending is “an unsolved mystery [with] total ambiguity, which makes it … that much more disturbing.” Despite that, I actually think is one of those rare episodes that would’ve worked better with season four’s extended running time. Most of the story is set in the plane’s cockpit with its crew, but we meet a couple of the passengers, only for the episode to do nothing with them. At least if their reactions had been fleshed out, maybe there would’ve been more meat here.

Nightmare as a ChildI’ve written before that some episodes suffer from the series’ own influence, or just from an ensuing 60 years of sophistication on the part of the viewer, and Nightmare as a Child is a case in point. It has two reveals, and they’re both not so much guessable as obvious and inevitable. There’s even a bit of a coda to thoroughly explain it all again in case you didn’t get it. Maybe that was necessary back in 1960, when stories like this were breaking new ground in the audience’s minds, but today it feels like overkill. However, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad episode — indeed, the story of a woman meeting a strange little girl who seems to know an impossible amount about her life is still suitably eerie and tense in places — but it is one that plays less effectively today. That said, if you engage with it not as a mystery with a surprise but as simply a story, it has more to offer — Kozak compares it to “a tightly wound Hitchcockian thriller/murder mystery”, while Scott Beggs of Thrillist reckons it “replaces the usual slow burn of horrifying realization with tense, immediate danger” while it “confronts memory and PTSD in a fascinating way”. They’re not wrong.

Another episode with a tricky-to-parse twist is Third from the Sun. It’s a famous one — I won’t directly spoil it here, but I feel like the title gives it away rather. But, a bit like Nightmare as a Child, the episode is saved by being rather good even without the ironic final note (indeed, Kozak reckons the twist is “unnecessary… cheap and immediately predictable”). It’s about two families who, aware that nuclear annihilation might be imminent, try to escape, but a suspicious government figure potentially stands in their way. It’s a decent little tale of Cold War paranoia, but the twist probably is a little distracting. It reshapes what we’ve already seen, and explains some of the deliberate oddities in direction and set dressing, but it sort of doubles back on itself because the characters are now heading into the situation we thought they were in in the first place…

More successful, for my money, is And When the Sky Was Opened, about a pair of pilots of an experimental spaceship that crashed on its return to Earth — except one of the pilots maintains there used to be three of them, but no one else can remember him. A bit like Flight 33, there are no overt morals or explanations to be found here, just a lot of mystery and madness. Unlike Flight 33, I thought it had enough of that to fuel the narrative, leaning in to how the unexplainable phenomena affects the characters. It’s a neat little sci-fi tale — and, incidentally, is based on a story by Richard Matheson, making this his first credit on the series. I know in some circles Matheson is rightly exalted, but I feel like he’s not as widely known as he deserves — Serling gets much of the credit for TZ’s success, but several of the very best episodes are by Matheson.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeHaving begun today with Twilight Zone’s first episode, we end with the last one produced — although they didn’t actually produce it. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an award-winning French short film that Serling saw and liked so much he bought the TV rights (saving so much money on the cost of producing another episode that he brought season five in on budget). Even if Serling didn’t point out its alternate origin in his introduction, it’s immediately clear this came from somewhere else, because it doesn’t look or feel at all like a normal TZ episode. So what made Serling think it would fit the show? Why, it has an ironic last-minute twist, of course! This is regularly one of the best-regarded episodes of the series, and the short film itself has a pretty strong rep too, but I don’t get it. There’s some pretty photography and the beginning is fairly atmospheric, but it quickly starts to drag — the story is thin and slow, ending with a twist that I found inevitable from early on.

I feel like I’ve been quite negative on this month’s selection of episodes, but that’s only because I have very high standards for The Twilight Zone. Owl Creek Bridge was the only one I truly disliked, while The Silence and And When the Sky Was Opened are definitely deserving of their higher reputation.

Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 15-21 — I guess the threat of cancellation hung over Elementary’s head as this season ended, because it very much gets to a place they could’ve left it if necessary. It’s one of those “that’ll do”-type endings, though, so I hope to find the final, foreshortened seventh run does a better job.
  • Jonathan Creek Series 2 — I didn’t remember this second series as vividly as I did the first, but it still has some very fine and baffling mysteries. Particular highlights include a man seen on two continents at the same time, and a priceless painting stolen from a closely-watched empty room.

    Things to Catch Up On
    CursedLast month, I didn’t include this section because I couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Naturally I then spent the next couple of days remembering things, like the recent re-adaptations of Alex Rider on Amazon and Snowpiercer on Netflix. Obviously, I still haven’t watched either of those. More recently, Netflix launched Cursed, a young adult (I think) take on Arthurian legend from the point of view of the Lady of the Lake. I’m not wholly convinced by the trailers or buzz, but I do love a bit of Arthurian whatnot so it’s on my radar. Also passingly of note is that Amazon just released season three of Absentia. I started out moderately enjoying the first season, but by the end was not at all impressed. I was surprised when it got a second run, so I’m even more flabbergasted to see it back for a third. I guess someone must be watching it. Each to their own.

    Next month… the second season of Netflix’s superhero show The Umbrella Academy is out soon, but as I never got round to season one, I doubt I’ll do season two next month. Elsewise, more of the best of The Twilight Zone, and I really should get round to The Mandalorian (how long’s it been now?!)

  • Hamilton (2020)

    2020 #157
    Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Hamilton on Disney+

    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.

    Aaron Burr, sir

    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.

    Looking for a film at work, work

    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.

    Not throwing away their shot

    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.

    5 out of 5

    Hamilton is available on Disney+ now.