james debate
james debate

Friday 10 July 2020

Directed by Thomas Kail
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller
Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff
Studio Walt Disney Pictures
Running time 160 minutes

alexander hamilton 2020 musical film broadway disney plus lin manuel miranda oscars

If 2020 has had one singular moment in pop culture it is this. The past several months of pandemic and global shutdown have left in its wake a world starving for new content, a gap in the market that Disney have gleefully closed by bringing forward by more than a year the release of the film recording of the musical that conquered the world, Hamilton.

Before we begin I think it is important to give great credit to Disney here. At a time where the world is grieving, isolated and in greater need of entertainment than ever, most studios have chosen to delay their upcoming content by months or years rather than release to streaming services, with a view to maximising profit when cinemas reopen. By contrast, for Disney to have actually brought forward the planned release of this film by a full year is an admirable move and a much needed moment of brightness for us all to enjoy (side note: it is also obviously a shrewd business move that will earn Disney millions in new subscriptions, which begs the question why more studios are not doing this).

This is, of course, the much anticipated streaming release of Hamilton, the musical. Not a complete film adaptation of the musical, but rather a recording of the show featuring the original Broadway cast and directed by the director of the original stage production. Those coming into this film blind need to bear that in mind, not that they expect a full Hollywood treatment.

I found myself approaching this film in the perhaps slightly unusual position of having never seen the stage show and being only familiar in passing with some of the music. I was aware of the hype, of course (and indeed came close to seeing the show on Broadway back in 2015 before opting against it), but like many of you the sales pitch of a rap musical about one of America's Founding Fathers held little appeal for me, much less my non-American other half.

Having now seen the show, it is my considered opinion that Hamilton is that rarest of things: something which not only manages to live up to its hype, but exceeds it.

In retrospect, I think the coverage of this show as a "rap musical" has done a great disservice to just how good Hamilton actually is. Indeed the music of the show is every bit as diverse as its cast, drawing on a great number of different styles and influences from Sondheim-esque pomposity to nineties pop and the British invasion bands of the 1960s. Despite what you may have heard, Hamilton has more Les Miserables in its DNA than Biggie Smalls.

It is a testament to the considerable compositional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda that he is able to dabble in so many different genres and produce such consistently excellent music. But as much as the sound, it is the thought behind the music that impresses, from its thematic consistency to the matching of different musical and vocal styles to different characters, and its clever use of recurring motifs to express its progression of ideas.

I often say that the test of a new musical is the extent to which its songs remain stuck in your head in the following days. By that metric Hamilton succeeds greater than any musical I can recall for many years. Sometimes you come across a good musical which gets a few songs stuck in your head (see Hadestown). Looking over the track list now, I can truly say that almost all the songs in Hamilton have found their way into my head at some point since watching the show.

While the music sounds great, it is the quality of the lyrics that stands out more than anything. Lin-Manuel spent ten years writing Hamilton and it shows. Every line is so clever, so carefully considered. The rhymes will impress, while the lightning pace of some of the lyrics can be dazzling. Above all, the content of these songs is remarkable and the extent to which Lin-Manuel manages to squeeze so much complex thinking, historical context, and ambitious storytelling in these songs belies an astonishingly adept command of language.

The quality of writing extends to its cast of characters. While the accuracy with which these historical figures are depicted is open to debate, these exaggerated larger than life personalities animate the characters in a way that historical figures rarely have been. A significant part of this achievement lies in the cast's strong performances. Daveed Diggs delivers perhaps the greatest spectacle of the evening with two markedly different yet wildly entertaining depictions of Lafayette and Jefferson. Renée Elise Goldsberry provides the most powerfully raw performance with her repressed proto-feminist depiction of Angelica Schuyler. Christopher Jackson's depiction of George Washington is perhaps the only one I have ever seen that truly managed to capture the fire and inspirational qualities behind the man. Jonathan Groff simply steals every scene in which he appears as his psychotic stalker-ex interpretation of King George. Then of course is the incomparably layered portrayal of Aaron Burr by Leslie Odom Jr. It says everything that Lin-Manuel's own performance, which is by no means shoddy, is probably the weakest among the primary cast.

So far I have mainly been discussing Hamilton's qualities as a stage production. But this is a review of a film recording. So we must also consider its qualities, both as a piece of cinema in its own right, and as an recording of the theatrical performance.

Over the course of lockdown I have found myself watching a great many recordings of theatre, including the National Theatre's own fairly elaborate cinematic recordings. In pretty much all cases I have found the experience to be an enjoyable if somewhat lacking alternative to the theatre, even in the case of productions that I really quite like. Try as they might, none of those recordings ever seem to quite capture the feeling of being there on the night, and ends up feeling somehow distant and sedate. Miraculously, Hamilton does not appear to suffer from these same issues, at least not to as great an extent.

Hamilton was filmed over three separate performances, including one session in an empty auditorium used for capturing all the close up shots. It is clear that a great deal of effort has been put into the camera work and the editing of the final film. I think this is ultimately what makes the difference. When you are actually sitting in a theatre, your eyes can provide that natural close focus, something which tends to get lost through the additional abstraction of the camera. By providing those carefully choreographed close up shots, this film effectively negates this issue and does a much better job of bringing you into the action. In some ways, I found the experience to be even superior to actually attending a production in person. That close up camera work allows you to appreciate the actors' performances in a way that you may not necessarily be able to do in a large and distant auditorium.

If I had to get nitpicky I would say that having to follow the director's camera takes away some of the audience's agency in choosing where to focus, potentially missing some of the fine work of the larger ensemble, or the background performances of the non-speaking cast. I also found it odd that Disney released the video without some chapter browsing functionality, something which would seem a bit of a no-brainer for a musical to allow instant jumping to particular songs or moments.

Clearly though, these are minor quibbles. Hamilton is undoubtedly a superlative piece of cinema which does a remarkable job of capturing the magic of theatre. As a piece of music, Hamilton is excellent. As a feat of writing it is a truly seminal accomplishment. That comes across plainly in this adaptation and the result is a cultural moment that should prove a delight to both longtime fans and newcomers alike. For the first time, Hamilton is easily and affordably available to everyone. If you have not yet managed to see what all the fuss is about, don't throw away your shot.

Newer Post Older Post Home