Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 40 minutes
Directed by: Thomas Kail
Nothing can take the place of seeing a Broadway musical performed live in a packed theater with actors belting it out on stage as the audience applauds, gasps and cheers, deeply engaged in every moment. There’s an undeniable energy in the room that varies from night to night and a spontaneity to the show’s rhythms that makes each performance unique. It’s a cherished, albeit ephemeral, experience. Yet blessedly the filmed presentation of HAMILTON, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pop culture juggernaut that intertwines history lessons and dope beats, comes close to replicating all of the feelings – and, thanks to our current pandemic, it’ll be the only option available for folks for the foreseeable future. This iteration, directed by Thomas Kail, who helmed the original stage production, captures the widely-beloved show’s infectious vigor and electrical charge, spinning it into a renewed powerful, affecting, and immersive experience.
Executed in what I like to call “Miranda pentameter” (easy free-flowing, anachronistic raps and rhymes), this is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s rise, going from orphaned immigrant to political revolutionary in record time. Through the course of his life, starting with his arrival in New York from the Caribbean and culminating in his bitter fracture from friend-turned-foe Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), his determination, gumption, ambition, intelligence and passion inspired and astounded those around him. His triumphs and tribulations are delved into throughout, even taking time to dip into the lives of other historical figures like George Washington (Chris Jackson), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan, who pulls double duty as Hercules Mulligan) and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs, who also plays Marquis de Lafayette). Women of Hamilton’s world are also given weight, like the proto-model for feminism, the Schuyler Sisters – Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who’s secretly crushing on Hamilton, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), who marries him, and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who’s his confidante.
There are many moving parts to this musical featuring performances from the original Broadway cast. The show is magnificent in the ways in which it ingeniously comments on history and its legacy through casting choices and lyrical aptitude. Nothing in this version dilutes its genius. While the façade that we’re watching a taped program and not a film inspired by the musical (with changing sets and locales) doesn’t entirely fade away, Kail and Company’s transportive presentation makes that barrier as transparent as possible by reframing and refocusing our attention. None of the emotional power of the actors’ work is lost in their visual translation, which traditionally has them playing to the back of the room. Rather, there’s more gained by harnessing the intimate undercurrents of these numbers with close-ups and medium shots. Kail’s reworked aesthetics hammer home the narrative’s thematic motifs, instilling the piece with a polished vibrancy. Production and lighting design are also not dealt short shrift. We can see the detailed intricacy of these moving set pieces and their innovative impact on how these song-and-dance numbers are performed.
Framing and editing also earn high marks during songs like Angelica’s “Satisfied,” which begins as a wedding toast and flashes back to retell events from the character’s perspective. Her “I want” song conveys confusion through multiple camera angles, lighting cues, quick cuts, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, in which dancers encircle her and obscure her vision. The rhythmic style of editing in conjunction with the musical arrangement and the varying visual scope of “Hurricane” emphasize the personal nature of the stakes facing Hamilton in his precarious position.
The lone time I – as a newbie – felt ever so slightly removed from this live show’s fanfare is when the die-hards in the audience audibly chuckle at King George III’s (Jonathan Groff) first appearance. It’s only after a few verses of “You’ll Be Back,” a bouncy ditty about the condescending English ruler’s show of love through brutality, where those like me will be clued in to the inside joke. Otherwise, in these self-isolating times, it’s a genuine gift to hear the audience responses to pivotal moments in the show, simulating what it might’ve felt like in “the room where it happened.”
HAMILTON Premieres Friday, July 3 at 3:00 a.m. ET/12:00 a.m. PT on Disney+.