No, it’s not really a “movie” in the sense of an all-out, bells-and-whistles Hollywood extravaganza. The Hamilton that debuts on Disney+ starting July 3rd is a live-performance film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ground-breaking, history-making Broadway musical that told the story of Alexander Hamilton (“the ten-dollar Founding Father”) in an electrifying, hip-hop style. It’s an indisputable classic. Even folks who never got to see the show when it first opened on Broadway have heard the score that went six-times platinum and became the best-selling cast album of all time.
Shot over three days in June of 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York, just weeks before Miranda and most of the original cast made way for new interpreters of the Tony-, Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning pop-culture phenom, this document — nicknamed Hamilfilm — is nothing less than the streaming event of year. In casting black, Hispanic, and Asian-American actors as the Founding Fathers and other dead white people of history, the first-generation Puerto Rican Miranda started a revolution in theater with his tale, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, of America then as told by America now. It cost Disney $75 million for the privilege of presenting it — call it money well spent — and they had intended to release this version in theaters next year before a pandemic required a change a plans. It could not have come at a better time.
Kudos are due to Thomas Kail, who directed the Broadway version and repeats the feat for the film. With the help of the gifted Irish-American cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, Rachel Getting Married), who had nine cameras situated in the theater to get just the right angles and close-ups, Hamilton guarantees you the best seat in the house. Since the coronavirus interrupted the sellout Broadway version and its touring companies until at least next year, this is the closest any of us will come to the incomparable thrill of live theater. The visual and aural dynamism achieved here is breathtaking. You’ll feel like you’re on stage with the actors, living it with them. In fact. this new gold standard for stage-to-screen transfer will make you wish the the same team had been available to live capture, say, A Chorus Line before Hollywood botched its one-of-kind brilliance with stilted directing and calamitous miscasting.
As the “bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman” who rose to fame from poverty on a Caribbean island “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter,” Alexander Hamilton represented the American Dream for immigrants. Opening during the Obama years when optimism had a chance, the play takes on additional power and purpose in the Trump-era of wall building and systemic racism. History books teach us that Hamilton was a soldier, statesman and legal scholar who founded our banking system; became the first U.S. Secretary of Treasury under George Washington; and died before the age of 50 in an 1804 pistol duel with then–Vice-President Aaron Burr. Miranda instructs us in his subject’s roots, in what Hamilton became without forgetting where he came from: “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Hamilton is Miranda’s baby, but it’s thanks to his generosity as an artist that he’s not the whole show. The talent on view here is staggering, with the actors bringing fire to the roles they first played back in 2015. Leslie Odom, Jr. won a Best Actor Tony for playing the bitterly envious Burr, and you’ll marvel at the stirring range of his performance — from Burr’s tender ode to fatherhood (“Dear Theodosia”) to his uncontrollable jealousy at being politically excluded from “The Room Where It Happens.” As Washington, who made Hamilton his right-hand man, Christopher Jackson deepens his performance to a hushed, sorrowful beauty. Though it seems impossible, Daveed Diggs (another Tony winner) seems fiercer and funnier in the dual roles of the prancing Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, who returns home from France asking, “What’d I Miss?” and engaging Hamilton in a series of rap battles over what direction their country should be going.
And cheers to the women in Hamilton’s life. He and Burr vie over which of the wealthy Schuyler sisters they should hit on in New York, “the greatest city in the world.” Though it’s Eliza (the sublime Phillipa Soo) who becomes his wife, it’s her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) he can’t get out of his head. The camera has added a new level of intimacy to Goldsberry’s Tony-crowned portrayal — her version of “Satisfied” here is a showstopping stunner. It’s lust that brings down Hamilton when he indulges in an adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones), at her blackmailing husband’s urging. Some of the carnal fire has seeped out their duet in “Say No To This,” since Disney said no to pushing things into R-rated territory. (The Mouse House also said no to two uses of the f-word.)
Otherwise, Hamilton remains intact and indelible as a stirring burst of youthful rebellion tinged with tragedy. Though Jonathan Groff repeats his hilarious turn as King George, there’s no disguising the monarch’s anger toward his former subjects. In a Brit-pop ditty, he threatens “I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love/da da da dat da.” Everyone who dies in this show dies by the gun, including Hamilton’s son Philip (a deeply touching Anthony Ramos Martinez) and Hamilton himself in a duel brought on by political rivalry. For most of us, Hamilton existed on the periphery of history (“Every other founding father’s story gets told/Every other founding father gets to grow old”). In the wrenching final number, his widow, who lived for 50 years after him, asks: “And when you’re gone, who remembers your name?/Who keeps your flame?/Who tells yours story?” How fortunate for us, and the memory of Hamilton, that Miranda stepped up for the job. Both onstage and onscreen, you can see exactly how he’s met the challenge with unparalleled passion for the defiance of youth against tyranny — and a nation of immigrants who get the job done.