In 2016, the producers of Hamilton had the good sense to set up some cameras and capture the lighting-in-a-bottle that was the Tony-winning Broadway sensation with its original cast intact. The intent was always to release it as a film someday — and today happens to be that day. Now, on Disney+, you can finally be in the room where it happened. Sort of.
As a person who spent most of 2016 submitting entry after entry for the “Hamilton” ticket lottery while listening to the soundtrack and sobbing at my midtown Manhattan desk, just blocks away from the Richard Rodgers Theatre — the actual room where it was happening — there’s obviously something deeply satisfying about seeing the play at long last. The story, of course, hasn’t changed. The rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton and his rival Aaron Burr are a window into the origin of the grand experiment that is the United States of America — flawed men disagreeing and making mistakes, never once seeing eye to eye on what this country stands for, facing the realization that after the war has been won the real battle begins. Hamilton, the man who always refused to throw away his shot, ultimately did in one fatal duel. The pride that helped him climb the ranks of our founding fathers led to his disgrace. History had its eyes on Hamilton and his cohorts — and now, through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s artful (if not always accurate) retelling, we have our eyes on them as well. But the plot has been dissected ad nauseam after all these years, just as the intricacies of the brilliant score have been praised far better than I ever could. Jefferson’s jazzy intro, King George’s despotic torch songs, Washington’s raps as metered as a march — there are so many reasons why “Hamilton” deservedly became a sensation, and why it’s undoubtedly the most important original musical of our generation. That’s the play though, and we’re here to talk about the film.
As far as film versions of live events go, Hamilton is smartly executed. Director Thomas Kail is always conscious of capturing the play as a play, rather than trying to use the live performance as a chance to somehow make “a movie” of it, and the balance he strikes is effective yet understated. The camera angles put you in the audience with a view of the entire stage, but there are enough close-ups that simultaneously put you on stage with the performers and give you a view not even the luckiest ticket holders could brag about. As someone who never saw the play, it’s a revelation in and of itself to see the cast in action — the physicality of Daveed Diggs as Lafayette and more so as Thomas Jefferson, the simmering resentment on Leslie Odom Jr.’s face as Burr waits for his chance, the patience and heartbreak of Phillipa Soo’s Eliza. I anticipated Jonathan Groff’s mad king interludes as a welcome comedic break, but never once did I imagine his spittle would be the breakout star of the show! Still, I imagine even those who who have seen the show in person will find something new to appreciate in this film, if only because no two performances of any show are ever identical.
So yes, the #Hamilfilm is predictably great. It’s a great recording of a great play, and at any other time that would be more than enough to justify its existence — but I wasn’t being needlessly hyperbolic when I said this might be the most important movie of the year. Because, like, look around. I don’t have the words to express the relentless neck-punch 2020 has been, and why bother trying? You’re living it too. You know. So let me skip straight to the most unintentionally surprising and heartwarming moment of the movie: the standing ovation at the end. Throughout the runtime, you’re aware of the presence of the 2016 live audience in fits and starts. Occasionally you’re allowed to hear their applause, their laughter, their cheers — but Kail never turns the cameras on them. This isn’t a comedian’s stand-up special, with cutaways to a theater packed with happy people. You’re here to watch “Hamilton”, just as the audience was four years ago, and I appreciated that the focus was never pulled from the stage.
Even at the end, the focus isn’t turned over to the audience. Instead, after Eliza’s final gasp, after the lights go down and come up for the cast bows, it’s more like the audience intrudes on the frame. The front rows stand in silhouette, at the bottom edge of your television screen, and for a second you feel like a part of that crowd. You feel like you were there, like you experienced this alongside hundreds of other living souls.
You feel like you were in the room where it happened, yes — but more than that, you feel like you’re in ANY room where ANYTHING is happening. When was the last time that was true? Because let’s face it — Broadway is shut down, theaters are shut down, Hollywood is shut down, even Vanilla Ice cancelled his stupid concert. We’re months deep into a pandemic and under quarantine, and it turns out that what Hamilton brings to the table at this specific moment in time isn’t just a chance to see the play for the first time, or the hundredth time — it’s the chance to feel like you’re not alone. I know Disney shelled out $75 Million for the rights to this film, with the intention to release it in theaters later this year, and I also know that it’s not generosity of spirit that inspired the company to throw us all a bone and drop this thing on Disney+ over Independence Day weekend. The fact is, it’s a business decision, and a savvy one at that: Disney is running out of fresh content to keep its freshman streaming platform afloat, and while Hamilton would undoubtedly acquit itself just fine whenever it’s released, it was never going to be a true blockbuster in movie terms. Instead, it’s poised to make a bigger splash right now by taking advantage of our undivided and starved attention.
More than any hope for our country or political timeliness of the play’s themes, what makes Hamilton the most important movie of the year is that it’s here at all, when nothing else is. It’s a billboard for the power of the theater and live performance, in a time when we can’t buy tickets. It’s a testament to the shifting paradigm of an industry struggling to stay relevant in a time of uncertainty. It’s a trending topic on Twitter, a communal experience we can all share from the comfort of our own homes at a socially responsible distance. It’s important because dammit, I just really needed it right now.
Header Image Source: Disney