2020, NR, 160 min. Directed by Thomas Kail. Starring Daveed Diggs, Renée Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 3, 2020
It’s a good time to be reminded of the principles America was founded on, and an even better time to reflect on the ways those principles have gone unrealized. As writer, composer, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda built that tension into his Broadway phenomenon Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, et al. cast almost entirely with Black and brown performers. It won 11 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015, and it is that original cast on display, lightning-in-a-bottle-like, in this filmed version of the stage production.
Forgoing the planned theatrical release, Hamilton now arrives exclusively on Disney+, a canny move that will surely convert new subscribers. Tony-winning director Thomas Kail – also a chief architect of the jazzy FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon – directed this filmed version, too. It was shot in June of 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theater over several performances in front of live audiences; additionally, a third of the numbers were performed without an audience in order to put cameras onstage for close-up, crane, and other more intrusive shots. The bulk of the perspective mimics the one you’d get from the audience – well, from the best seat of the house – which is the appropriate placement to give viewers a sense of the scope of the stage, thrumming with activity. But Kail also knows well when to deploy an alternative view: an overhead shot, Busby Berkeley-style, of the revolving stage and busy ensemble dancers, or a rear-of-stage camera catching from behind King George’s (Groff) seductive entrance to the show’s comic highlight “You’ll Be Back.” It’s the closeups that slay – the quick-witted, crazily charismatic Miranda, landing a punchline as the pugnacious Hamilton; Groff’s micro-expression swerves between courtly, bored, and homicidal; Leslie Odom Jr., as Aaron Burr, history’s most infamous duelist, slowly curdling from jealousy and perceived injustice.
Odom Jr. won the Tony for his performance here, a fact that’s been somewhat dwarfed over the years by Miranda’s tsunamic success, but the neat trick of this filmed version is to time-machine viewers back to an extraordinary moment in American cultural history – to put us, to borrow from Miranda, in the room where it happened. It feels like such a gift.
Hamilton debuts on Disney+ on July 3.