Review – Hamilton (2020)

You’ve heard of it, and maybe you’ve even heard the entirety of the Broadway soundtrack on loop for years. Still, it’s likely that (unless you have had the means to pay to see it on stage) Hamilton, the stage musical, has been something you haven’t experienced yourself. Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s revolutionary take (beyond just its setting) on the life of American statesman, Alexander Hamilton, won multiple Tonys in 2016 during its original Broadway run, and the music, itself a blend of hip-hop and history, set records as a mixtape and cast album. The uniqueness goes beyond its sound and flavor, as it casts mostly non-white actors in the lead roles, endeavoring to highlight history in an approachable and unforgettable way for today’s generation.

While the show has enjoyed a healthy, off-Broadway life since 2016, Disney bought the rights to release a filmed stage production near the end of that original Broadway run with that famed cast. Originally planned for a theatrical release in 2021, Disney has changed plans and released it to the masses on Disney+, just in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. As I said, this is a production that has been more talked about than experienced, but now, thanks to an accelerated release, it’s the rare opportunity for the world to take part in the energy of this unique theater experience without paying exorbitant prices to do so. Does this filmed version offer a worthy look at what makes this story so special?

For those unfamiliar with the story of the man on our $10 bill, Hamilton seeks to rectify that. America has been called a nation of immigrants, but amidst the fabled statesman behind our country’s founding, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) was uniquely immigrant. His struggles and relationships with George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), and, yes, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) provide the backbone of much of the narrative, and while history class may speed past many of the details of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, this production finds ways of allowing us a sense of discovery into his life, no matter how much we may have known already.

This filmed recording is directed by Thomas Kail, the original director of the off-Broadway and Broadway productions, so while there are quick-cut edits that occur, as most of these filmed recordings have, we are getting the added benefit of seeing the vision of the man who oversaw the original, award-winning run. Other critics have stated that the edit we see here largely ignores the wider-view afforded to the audience, as it is more interested in tighter shots of the performers. I can’t say if this is coming from those who have had the opportunity to see this live already, but I show no fault to Kail‘s choices here at all. While some shots may be at the unavoidable expense of missing out on the full stage view, this is clearly meant to commemorate the original cast’s performances at the tail-end of that original run. For those who’ve never seen the show, it’s an approachable, filmic version to latch onto and feed off its undeniable energy; for those who have seen the stage version, it allows a closer highlight of the performances from views that aren’t possible in the 40th row.

While some might say public school offers an entire spoilery background of all that takes place, I’d say they’re wrong. The beauty of this production is how it takes our nation’s founding and remixes it for generations far removed from that time. You can easily find any number of opinions online that will tell you all the reasons for what makes Hamilton special, but having the opportunity to see it yourself in your own home is a treat to itself that allows you the chance to form your own reasons. The thought that I would have never seen Jonathan Groff as King George without this is almost too much to consider; his spittle-drenched musical numbers were oddly my favorite part of it all. It’s clear that Miranda created this “by the people, for the people”, and there is something oddly democratic and American about Disney releasing this how and when they did. Yes, we are four years removed from when it was filmed, but in this election year fraught with COVID-19, political demonstrations, and racial tensions throughout our land, it might be exactly what we’ve needed to recalibrate in some way, exactly when we needed it.

Film Review - Hamilton

Content-wise, it may surprise some. Yes, there is language (even F-words, although silenced), there is sexual content, and, of course, many die at the hands of others. The founding fathers were flawed men, and this shows that to be the case; just one wrinkle of this would be Hamilton’s complicated and conflicting relationships with the women in his life, played incredibly by Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones. I wouldn’t say this is a family film, at all, but inevitably, there will be families watching it. In those cases, it does provide opportunity to address the topic of America’s founding with a fresh perspective. It allows us to see that many of the famed men on our currency were real people with real human motivations that are relatable, even across the echoes of time. The topic of legacy is also important, as Christians should be endeavoring to live lives that ripple generationally for Jesus beyond our lifespans on Earth.

Overall, that’s the real strength of Hamilton, a sense that this country and its history belongs to us all, even if we may feel it doesn’t. Love, lust, ambition, betrayal, and a host of motivations and emotions all manifest in the lives and decisions that impact and affect us today, even so many years removed from it all. Capturing all of that lyrically is an incredible achievement to itself, but with the added beauty of it all played out on stage and largely available is a true treat and stands as a highlight for Disney+ in its first year. I highly recommend taking it all in, more than just to see what all the hubbub has been about but to also experience its unique, inescapable energy for yourself. Whether one has seen or heard it all before, this filmed version offers something for all who view it. It may have taken four years to be available to the masses, but it was worth the wait…worth the wait.

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