The Hamilton Movie Is a Mesmerizing, Exuberant Delight

7 minute read

The moment Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived the idea of telling the story of Alexander Hamilton almost exclusively with a cast of brown and Black actors was its own kind of big bang. People have tried before to jazz up the story of the founding fathers, with often miserable results (Exhibit A, from 1972: the lackluster film musical 1776). And theater companies have mounted productions of Shakespearean plays and other works from the white, English-speaking canon with casts made up wholly of people of color. But by focusing specifically on the early days of our nation’s fraught history, Miranda affirmed something few people had overtly recognized: That the history of the United States—a country founded by white men who first took land from native people, then built further riches from the labor of enslaved people—belongs to us all, regardless of color. It is ours both to own and to own up to, depending on who we are and who our forebears were, whether we benefited greatly from the status quo or were harmed by it. With Hamilton, Miranda added a swooping tag to the great Woody Guthrie line: This land was made for you and me, because it was made by you and me.

The main problem with Hamilton’s expansive vision—the show was first performed at the Public Theater in New York in 2015, before becoming a nearly impossible-to-see Broadway hit—was that so few people could experience it. But a filmed version of Hamilton now changes all that: Miranda, who also plays the title role, and the show’s director, Thomas Kail, had recorded some 2016 performances at the Richard Rodgers Theater, with the intention of eventually turning it into a theatrically released film. Although that plan has been sidelined by COVID, the “movie” version of Hamilton will be available to stream beginning July 3 on Disney+, and it’s a pleasure—both a delight to watch and a great piece of pop scholarship, an entertainment informed by a sense of history and of curiosity.

Miranda was inspired to write the show after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, and he hews fairly close to fact: The show opens with an exuberant number that tells us, in shorthand, who Alexander Hamilton was—as if to say, There’s no shame in not knowing, but wouldn’t you like to know? The major figures in the life of this brash and extraordinary figure come forward one by one, singing just a snippet of their role in his story, weaving around one another like links in a human chain. They include his sweet but also surprisingly shrewd and resilient wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo); Philip (Anthony Ramos), the son who met a tragic end; and Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza’s sister, who loves her brother-in-law in a way that causes her great suffering. We meet Hamilton’s friends, like the suave Marquis de Lafayette (the fabulous Daveed Diggs, who also plays Thomas Jefferson), and the leader who made Hamilton a trusted advisor, George Washington (Christopher Jackson). And finally, there’s the man who introduces himself as “the damn fool that shot him,” Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), a haunted narrator whose competitiveness and rancor leads him to a moment that essentially ends two lives, even though it results in only one immediate death.

At the center of it all is Miranda’s Hamilton, a man who, as he tells us, wants the world to know his name. Born out of wedlock in the British West Indies, he’s orphaned at age 12; as a young man, he’s so bright that he’s sent to New York to study. From there, he’ll become a soldier, a trusted member of then-General Washington’s staff, a lawyer and eventually the first Secretary of the Treasury. But he’s also one of the architects of the United States as both a nation and an ideal, an immigrant who, in Miranda’s words, “got the job done.”

Miranda, as both writer and actor, approaches Hamilton’s story with stars in his eyes, and his sense of joy and discovery rings through the material. There’s enough drama here for three lives, let alone one. Hamilton, presented by Miranda as a charismatic, impetuous, sometimes maddening figure, is a magnet for everything life has to offer, and he grabs some of it unwisely.

As a performer, Miranda is exuberant almost to the point of overkill; at close range, his broad, open-hearted facial expressions sometimes register as mugging, an issue that might not be as apparent in live performance. Even so, his energy carries the day, and the performers around him feed off it; they’re bolstered, it seems, by the rapture of doing something new—the whole show is like one big cymbal-crash, an announcement of “I am here!” The musical numbers, all penned by Miranda, slide easily from the braggadocio of ‘90s rap to the lilt of Harlem jazz and beyond. Miraculously, nothing sounds excessively show-tuney: This is music mostly meant to be sung, not belted. There are ballads that resonate with somber maturity (“It’s Quiet Uptown”), and teasing, bluesy numbers that beckon like a neon nightclub sign (“The Room Where It Happens”). King George III’s big moment, “You’ll Be Back”—the monarch who lost his grip on the colonies is played by a comically exaggerated Jonathan Groff—has the swervey salaciousness of an Anthony Newley cabaret tune from the early ‘70s.

There are more than 20 songs in all—almost too many! But the variety is so vast that they don’t grow tiresome. The staging is inventive and graceful: At one point a revolving segment of the stage allows the players in Hamilton’s life to circle in mesmerizing slow motion, like history’s ghosts coming round to remind us that they, too, were once flesh and blood. If you’ve already seen the show—I hadn’t—these delights won’t be new to you. But even though nothing matches the thrill of live performance, the filmed Hamilton does offer its advantages: Kail, the director of this film as well as the play, chooses his close-ups carefully, and there’s no busy, distracting camera work. The effect is that of watching the show not from the best seat in the house, but from the best ten seats. Best of all is the exultation of watching so many marvelous performers, ablaze with the elation of making something truly new. The history of this cracked mess of a country, bold and dramatic but also streaked with blood, is for all of us to remember, but also to build upon. As Hamilton reminds us, we’re the sum of our founding fathers’ good ideas as well as their misdeeds. The framers put the frame around the future—but they left the job of filling it to us.

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