The smash-hit musical made available to the world, Hamilton tells the story of the ill-fated founding father through hip-hop. But how good is its historical content? If the production loses a little of its charm when transitioned from the stage to the screen, it still pulls off an enjoyable and genuinely engrossing performance.
It’s hard to review Hamilton so late after its original stage preview in 2015, in a world where the breathy vocals of Lin Manuel-Miranda were unknown to anyone who hadn’t been to Broadway, and when nobody (and certainly those of us in Europe) knew anything at all about Alexander Hamilton. There was a stage where it everywhere, always, playing out through the headphones of people on buses and plastered over every news station and review. You would be forgiven for having gotten somewhat sick of its ever-presence, especially if you never connected with the original hype. But to appreciate the film we need to cast our minds back to the sheer ground-breaking nature of the production; relatively unknown history in a new and exciting form. And for many, who have only ever heard the soundtrack or heard rumours of the play, this Disney+ recording is a chance to do just that – to see Hamilton, in its full and intended setting, for the first time.
The film plays out over the years either side of the American Revolutionary war, and forefronts both the adrenaline of the fight for freedom and the mind-numbing paperwork and politics of re-establishing working order. Alexander Hamilton, a wide-eyed optimist for change, is dragged through war, political intrigue and emotional turmoil in the pursuit of the ideal of the free America he so cherishes. There’s a lot of (metaphorical, although if I remember correctly, at least once literal) flag-waving here that non-Americans may find somewhat strange but, to its credit, the play counter-balances the dominance of this by its strong focus on social justice. We are still asked very strongly to love America, home of the free with the usual firework display, but it is an American that COULD be, rather than currently is.
Hamilton is, of course, a musical – a genre often little represented among historical films. More than that, it is a hip-hop musical – gone are the sweeping crowd songs of Les Mis. I can see how both of those facts might put off potential audiences. But give it a go. it might not be your cup of tea but, indisputably, it’s an impressive work of writing. The cast is stellar and, even if you have a bone to pick with the inescapable cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton, there are some blinding performances on display here. You might not rewatch Hamilton, but you’ll never regret having seen it the first time.
What you see on Disney+ is a recording of the stage production, accompanied by (unseen) cheering audience – this is not a traditional film adaptation of a musical, as with Les Mis or Phantom. That brings with it both advantages and disadvantages. The flash and flair of Broadway are very much alive, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the theatre of it all (if you’ll forgive the pun). The set design has been rightfully praised, and it’s a slick and seamless production. But it’s somewhat jarring to hear the audience roar but not see them, and you can’t help but feel that you’re missing a little something by not being there in person; I would certainly have preferred a performance with no audience.
Historically, there are some questions to be asked. The play stirred criticism for portraying the ‘goodies’ in such a positive light, despite their slave-owning past. The transposition of the historical context to hip-hop allows any real concerns for historical accuracy to be thrown out the window (which is, in many ways, not necessarily a bad thing). But Manuel-Miranda (and Chernow, whose book on Hamilton inspired the play) is to be congratulated on opening an understudied topic and character within a well-known context to a broader audience. Few Americans could have told you what Alexander Hamilton had contributed to America before the play’s popularity; I highly doubt almost anyone outside of America had even heard of him.
All in all, Hamilton delivers on its ground-breaking promise, even after all these years. It’s refreshing to review a historical film that isn’t all shaky-cam and explosions, and that’s a feeling that’s carried through to the general audience too. Its freshness tires somewhat towards the second half but, when we’re dealing with such intense levels of manic energy, who can not forgive an inevitable slight slump across the over 2 hours of runtime.