Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has electrified America in a way that few Broadway shows ever manage. The hip-hop musical about the life and times of the $10 founding father has earned mentions on late-night television, won Tonys and Grammys, inspired podcasts, cosplays and memes, and even kept its hero from being bumped from our money. It’s likewise launched Miranda onto the covers of magazines, into movies, and into a stellar hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. There’s a lot of good Hamilton has done for history, Broadway, and hip hop. But the downside to all this is that it’s nearly impossible (or at the very least insanely expensive) to get tickets to be in the room where it happens. But if you can’t wait for it (wait for it) any longer, Hamilton’s America has come to answer your desperate prayers.
So popular at the New York Film Festival that it earned two encore screenings, this doc directed by first-time filmmaker Alex Horowitz parallels the story of Alexander Hamilton with the creation of the musical made in his name. And that means a dizzying amount of footage from that much-talked about yet mysterious recorded performance with the entire original cast!
Horowitz first approached Miranda back in 2014, a year before Hamilton would open Off-Broadway. Wearing a telling t-shirt that reads “Look, I made a hat…,” the ever-energetic writer/star of In The Heights wanders around his in-construction Washington Heights apartment, speaking of his excitement for developing the show that began as an Obama-approved rap song.
Much like the narrative mapped out by the show’s award-winning soundtrack, Hamilfans know this story: on vacation from In The Heights, Miranda grabbed a book off the shelf to read as he swung in beach-set hammocks. Fatefully, it was Ron Chernow’s biography on the founder of America’s national bank. When the White House came calling, Miranda did not throw away his shot.
Bits of this story have been told in interviews with the cast, in the #Hamiltome, or in Miranda’s oft-inspiring Twitter timeline. But seeing it all knit together alongside the story of the polarizing Hamilton is exhilarating. Hamilton’s America offers intimate peeks inside Miranda’s process, revealing footage of his writing within Aaron Burr’s bedroom, and visiting historic sites like Valley Forge and Mount Vernon with castmates Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Christopher Jackson, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Phillipa Soo. Adding to the import, info, and insight of this delightful doc are talking heads not only with the aforementioned cast and crew, but also with Broadway legends Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, historians like Ron Chernow, Joanne Freeman, and Annette Gordon-Reed, and politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan, and even George W. Bush.
Following the cues of the musical, Hamilton’s America manages to talk about politics without taking political sides. Hororwitz gives his interview subjects the same dignity of complexity that Miranda did his Hamilton, making the doc an incredible time capsule of the show’s creation and evolving importance. Driven by Miranda’s contagious enthusiasm, the film feels remarkably personal. As he tells anecdotes about his own family’s struggle in America, and his own battles to write like he’s running out of time, I found myself nodding earnestly, as if the mesmerizing Miranda weren’t being projected on a movie theater screen but was having a personal conversation with just me.
Hamilfans will rejoice over the information, interviews, and elegance of Hamilton’s America. But they’ll completely lose their goddamn minds over its performance sections. THR outlined which numbers from the show earn some screentime. Several of these don’t occur within the Richard Rodgers Theater, but within a special White House concert. Still, it’s wondrous. To see how the performance might differ from how you’ve imagined, to see the expressions of wistfulness, arrogance, and pain play across the faces of Odom, Diggs, and Soo, is the closest many of us will get to seeing the show with the original cast. Well, until that damned performance is released in full!
Personally, I squealed as Jonathan Groff in his King George finery snarked out “You’ll Be Back,” shimmied as Diggs dug into “What’d I Miss,” and was riveted with chills as Soo belted out the tearjerking “Burn.” Yet it’s tricky to pick highlights of Hamilton’s America, as it is a doc made entirely of light. Miranda is human sunshine, and has surrounded himself by people who reflect his ambition and hope back at him, resulting in art so inspiring that it impacts even those who can’t see it firsthand. Thankfully, this doc allows many more to feel that magic. How lucky we are to be alive right now!
Hamilton’s America airs on PBS Friday, October 21st at 9/8c as part of Great Performances.
Kristy Puchko has lost the Hamilton lottery more times than she’s had hot meals.