Entertainment

Hamilton — film version of Broadway smash hit — arrives with much-needed burst of inspiration

The wait is over. Hamilton, the groundbreaking musical, has arrived on the Disney streaming service. Eli Glasner explores whether the Broadway smash hit works on the small screen.

With mutiple cameras and close-ups, film captures the energy of original production

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. appear first as friends and then competing rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Disney)

One of the most striking things about the newly released filmed version of the groundbreaking musical Hamilton is that the release almost didn't happen. 

As reported by the New York Times in March as the effects of the pandemic set in, Robert Iger, executive chairman of Disney, called Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star and artistic force behind the hip-hop musical, and Thomas Kail, Hamilton's director. 

Iger thought the time was right to release the film to the Disney+ streaming service, instead of the original plan, an October 2021 big screen release. Kail and Miranda turned him down. 

Now months later with the coronavirus rebounding in the United States, Hamilton has arrived just before America's Independence Day. (Miranda said he was swayed by tales of people who had tickets for the musical about Alexander Hamilton, the founding father who created the modern American banking system, but couldn't attend due to the virus.) 

WATCH | Official trailer for the filmed version of Hamilton: 

Whether streaming at home or live on stage, what sets Hamilton apart isn't just its swagger but a revolutionary reimagining of America. Gone are the musty portraits of men in powdered wigs. Instead, the stage is filled with a multiracial cast that looks like it was plucked from a block in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The immigrants who get the job done sing about the young republic's struggle for independence, battling first against England and then charting a path forward. With the now familiar cadence of Miranda's lyrics, cabinet debates become ciphers with Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson trading lines back and forth.

There's something so appropriate about using the irreverence of hip hop, an art form built on remixing and sampling, to tell the story of men writing their own rules.

This multiracial retelling of America's origin story isn't just about inclusion. The casting also gives the history lesson a new vigour. As the aspiring Hamilton, Miranda's eyes blaze with ambition, while his rival Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr., can barely contain his envy.  

Actor Daveed Diggs, centre, plays both French officer Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson with a playful flair. (Disney)

Then there's Daveed Diggs, doing double duty as both the French military officer Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson. As Lafayette, Diggs bounces playfully across the stage, while as Jefferson,he personifies the style and smarts to keep Hamilton at bay. 

Part of what makes the filmed version so wistful is that it functions as a reminder. This was recorded B.P. — before the pandemic, in the waning days of the Obama presidency. But more than the atmosphere of optimism that hangs in the air, the two live performances recorded in June 2016 marked what would be the end for the original cast. Perhaps that explains the extra level of emotion in many of the performances — Miranda's voice quavering as he hits a song's climax.

WATCH | Near musical's beginning, Miranda appears as young Hamilton starting his political career: 

How they captured it

The ability to perceive that level of detail is part of what makes this recording unique. Director Kail used stationary cameras hidden from the live audience. Then, filming in the empty Richard Rodgers Theater, the cast performed again and again while camera dollies, cranes and Steadicams followed the action.

The result is something of a hybrid, capturing the energy of the stage production, the audience cheering but also providing close-ups, zooming in to see the spittle flying from King George during You'll be Back or the tears rolling down the cheeks of Eliza, Hamilton's wife. 

Jonathan Groff prances as the preening King George in the number You'll Be Back. (Disney)

With a run time of two hours and 40 minutes (including an intermission), Hamilton is an exercise in endurance, but Miranda wisely breaks up the politics by exploring the complications of Hamilton's love life. While the Schuyler sisters, Eliza and Angelica, are more subplots than equal partners in the story, it gives the production a chance to literally change the tune, shifting from battle raps into heartfelt ballads.

Given the hectic nature of the staging and the rapid pace of the songs, Hamilton does take time to adjust to the small screen. In the theatre, you can choose to follow a performer; here, the camera chooses for you.  

WATCH | Hamilton rival Aaron Burr narrates The Room Where It Happened, a song about backroom deals:

At one point, Hamilton sings about his legacy, describing it is as "planting seeds in a garden you never get to see."

Certainly, Miranda never knew his film would be released in a time when everything exists in this strange state of suspended animation. 

But like a time capsule from an earlier age, Hamilton arrives with a much-needed burst of inspiration. It's more a celebration of the promise of America rather than a catalogue of the nation's sins. 

Slavery is mentioned but only in a few passing refrains. What Miranda's musical does is revitalize part of the American dream long forgotten. 

Near the end, Hamilton says, "I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me."

Now is the perfect time to enjoy that song.

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