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Disney+ Review: Hamilton

July 4, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway show Hamilton, a wildly ambitious rap musical based on the life of America’s “ten dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton, is indisputably one of the biggest pop culture sensations of the past decade.

Now those of us who weren’t lucky enough to see the show live finally get to experience it for ourselves with this new filmed version that just dropped on Disney+, which the studio was initially planning to release in theatres in October of 2021.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing swaths of people to be stuck at home hungry for more content, Robert Iger made the last minute decision to drop Hamilton right away on the streaming service instead in a surprise move.

The decision is fitting, not least of which because the pandemic has also forced Broadway to shut down for the remainder of the year, and watching the film reminds us of the magic of the live theatre experience. The film was shot in front of live audiences at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York in June of 2016, right before Miranda left the show. This is Hamilton in all its glory, (the film is 160 minutes with a one minute intermission), the version of it that initially became a sensation featuring the original Broadway cast, now immortalized on film for all to see.

Director Thomas Kail has truly gone above and beyond in his capturing of the show, and watching Hamilton on Disney+ is an experience that blurs the line between viewing a stage production and an actual movie. What sets Hamilton apart from merely being a simple filmed version of the show is that it was shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn in a very cinematic way, using multiple cameras to capture it from different angles, and not just in one or two wide shots showing the whole stage at all times.

It’s a stage show that is shot like a movie. The cameras glide along the front of the stage, while also taking us right up into the faces of the actors at key moments. Editor Jonah Moran does an excellent job of assembling all of this footage, which was captured over three successive performances, often cutting it together like an actual movie, including some traditional shot-reverse-shot scenes. We get wide shots, mediums, and closeups that reveal the sweat on the faces of the actors, cut together in a way that fuels the drama and fits the music.

And yet, as a film, Hamilton doesn’t try to erase the fact it was filmed in front of a live audience. We can see the impressive turntable set moving the actors around the stage during big set-pieces. The entrance to the orchestra pit is visible from certain angles. While there are no direct shots of the audience, we can hear them applauding in the background. This all adds to the magic of the experience, like a front-row ticket to the show with the added bonus of being on stage with the actors.

The fact that this much love and care was put into delivering the Broadway production to audiences at home is not shocking. This is Hamilton, after all, the winner of eleven Tony Awards out of a record sixteen nominations, and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show, first staged in 2015, is set in the late 1700s, and is centred around the key roles that Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) played in fighting for America’s independence from British rule under King George III (Jonathan Groff, offering a campy, comedic take on royalty), and the ratification of the United States constitution.

Told in the form of a completely sung-through musical, the show charts Hamilton’s rise from being a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant arriving on the shores of New York to become the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington (Christopher Jackson). The show also allows us to get caught up in the story of his relationships with Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), whom he marries, and her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and, crucially, Hamilton’s rivalry with the “damn fool who shot him,” Aaron Burr (a brilliant Leslie Odom Jr., who famously beat Miranda for the Best Actor Tony).

A big theme of Hamilton is who gets to tell the story of history, exemplified by the musical’s final number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” with some voices getting elevated as others are left out. Miranda flips the script by casting people of colour in the roles of white historical figures like James Madison (Okierete Onaodowan) and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Diggs, who also plays Marquis de Lafayette in the show’s first act before switching roles for the second, portrays Jefferson as an arrogant, full of himself adversary to Hamilton, and we are really able to appreciate the energy of his charismatic, Tony-winning performance on screen.

Miranda’s ability to make American history come alive through his incredibly clever and catchy rhyming schemes, and a genre-bending musical score that mixes Broadway, hip-hop and other influences, is one of the most impressive things about the show. The music is still the defining element of Hamilton. The film gives us the thrill of experiencing exhilarating musical numbers like “My Shot,” “The Room Where It Happens” and the stage-setting opening number “Alexander Hamilton,” all of which are established parts of the pop cultural lexicon at this point, within the context of the show.

Eliza’s big solo number “Burn” is captured here in a very intimate way, and the emotional gut-punch of “It’s Quiet Uptown” serves as a compelling, heartbreaking dramatic moment on-screen. I actually wish that the original productions of other recent Broadway hits like Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away had been filmed like this as well. This is a brilliantly filmed version of Hamilton, that captures the thrill of live theatre with editing and cinematography that really helps it come alive on screen in a way that feels cinematic.

I never got to see Hamilton on stage. I was hoping to attend a production of it this summer before the show’s recently launched Toronto run got postponed, and it might still be a while before we are able to enjoy the full live theatre experience again. So I’m thankful for the chance to experience Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton on screen, at home, in such a vibrant and vivid way.

Hamilton is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2020 9:38 am

    Surprisingly yesterday was the first time I listened to the entire Hamilton soundtrack. I am not the biggest fan of hip-hop and rap, but I do love musicals. After doing errands with my parents, my mom put on the Hamilton Soundtrack through Apple Music. Don’t know why I decided to listen to the entire soundtrack. Thought the musical was all hip-hop and rap- turns out I was wrong

    Like

    • July 5, 2020 10:04 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it! Yeah the soundtrack is such a great mix of different musical influences.

      Like

      • July 5, 2020 10:05 pm

        really thought Hamilton was just hip-hope and rap. People did not understand why I did not want to give Hamilton a chance since I am a massive musical theatre fan

        Like

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