Anyone who knows me knows that I went through a pretty hardcore Hamilton phase when that musical first hit Broadway. I played the album all the time, I knew the vast majority of the lyrics. I adored that show. And I still do, even if I think In the Heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s superior show. So, naturally, when the news broke that Disney+ would be debuting the live capture of the show, recorded just before the original cast departed, over a year earlier than expected, I was devilishly excited. I’d only seen bits and pieces of the show, having never had a chance to see it in person, and I was so ready to finally see this show that I loved. Well, now that I’ve seen the film, how do I feel? I mean, it’s Hamilton and I love Hamilton. But, to be honest, this capture is a bit of a mixed bag. (4 out of 5 wands.)
Hamilton (directed by Thomas Kail, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
An unforgettable cinematic stage performance, the filmed version of the original Broadway production of “Hamilton” combines the best elements of live theater, film and streaming to bring the cultural phenomenon to homes around the world for a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Hamilton” is the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, “Hamilton” has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theatre—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. Filmed at The Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in June of 2016, the film transports its audience into the world of the Broadway show in a uniquely intimate way.
At this point, I don’t see the point in reviewing Hamilton the show. So much has been written about it at this point and I don’t really have much to add. I adore the show. The music is excellent but I feel the book is often a bit unfocused and that Act 2 is much better than Act 1. But it’s a great show, nonetheless. What I do think warrants some discussion is how well the stage show translates to the screen. It’s notoriously difficult to capture the magic of live theatre on film and, unfortunately, Hamilton doesn’t prove to be the exception to this rule. While there are moments of utter brilliance in Thomas Kail’s capture of the stage show, there are also some truly baffling moments that not only don’t work but detract from the overall experience.
The biggest culprit here is Kail’s choice of camera angles. Live captures of stage shows, or pro-shots as they’re often called in the theatre world, have to walk a fine line between capturing enough of the stage so that the wider picture can be enjoyed while also capturing enough close-ups of the actors to give the viewers at home a chance to really see the actor’s faces – something you never have the chance to do on stage. It’s a tightrope balancing act that’s incredibly difficult to fully pull off. A lot of pro-shots end up leaning a little too heavily on close-ups and neglecting to give audiences the full context of what’s going on onstage. Hamilton tries to rectify this problem by providing a lot of wide shots that do a fabulous job of showing off Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography while mixing in a number of closeups for key moments that do a beautiful job of showing some of the actors’ more nuanced emotions. Individually, a lot of the camera choices are great ones. But it all sort of falls apart in the execution and combination of the shots.
The problem, for me, lies in how the film is edited. For much of act one, there is no rhyme or reason as to why a wide shot is chosen at any given moment instead of a close up, or vice versa. For example, in “Alexander Hamilton,” Kail chooses to go with a wide shot for Burr’s “I’m the damn fool that shot him” line and then immediately cuts to a close up as soon as the line ends. What is the purpose of that? Would it not have made more sense to cut to the close up before the line was said, so that we could actually see Burr’s reaction as he said the line? Or in “Farmer Refuted,” where the shot is so wide you can barely see Samuel Seabury. Or in “Wait For It,” where the shot is so wide but Burr is the only one really doing anything and we’re just watching the ensemble slowly walk to their places in the dark. A lot of the wide shots are just a little too wide; they’re so wide that unless you have a really big screen it can be difficult to actually pick out who’s on stage.
Conversely, there are several moments where Kail picks a close-up that doesn’t really make sense, or he’ll cut from shot-to-shot so quickly that it feels disorienting (see King George’s entrance in “You’ll Be Back,” Washington’s entrance in “Right Hand Man,” and the rewind sequence in “Satisfied.”) The first act is littered with odd choices like this: sticking to an extreme wide shot when there’s not much happening on stage, leaving a lot of dead space or oddly focusing on the ensemble when they’re not really doing much instead of focusing on what the actual action is, or just cutting too frequently that it distracts from what’s going on. It sometimes feels like they plopped a bunch of cameras in the house of the Richard Rodgers theatre and just sort of hoped for the best. I know that’s not what they did, but that’s how much of act 1 feels.
But, more often, the camerawork does work. Act 2 is a marked improvement over Act 1 in terms of editing, with there being more logic to the editing and shot composition and a better flow to everything. However, that’s not to say that all of Act 1 is rough. Throughout both acts, there are numerous times where Kail picks a shot, whether it be a wide shot or a close up, and holds it long enough for the moment to feel both meaningful and intentional. There are some beautiful close ups of Jonathan Groff during all three of his numbers, some great work in “Satisfied,” and some truly beautiful shots in “Dear Theodosia.” Much of the best camerawork comes in Act 2, though, where it feels like Kail took more chances to editorialize. “Burn” is particularly noteworthy, as is “It’s Quiet Uptown,” “The Election of 1800” (being able to see Leslie Odom Jr.’s facial expressions as Burr goes from hopeful to hopeless is a gift), “The World Was Wide Enough” (there’s one shot towards the end of Hamilton’s final verse that’s truly breathtaking), and “History Has its Eyes on You.”
Overall, the camerawork in Hamilton is a mixed bag. If you’re sensitive to editing and camera framing, there may be stuff here that really grinds your gears. But if you don’t care all that much, you probably won’t be bothered. I’m fairly sensitive to camera stuff, so all of this leaped out at me and proved distracting at times but I suspect most won’t care. At the end of the day, Kail does his job: he captures the show for posterity in a way that is enjoyable and understandable to watch. It’s a true gift to be able to have a professional recording of a show like Hamilton and this film certainly does a decent job at capturing the magic of the show – even if it fails to live up to some of the pre-release hype about how cool the filming is. It’s a lovely experience and it’s easy to find yourself sucked into the story.
Where the Hamilton movie shines brightest, though, is in the performances from the actors and in Miranda’s music, beautifully mixed throughout. The Hamilton film gives the actors a lot of beautiful moments to shine. Leslie Odom, Jr.’s turn as Burr is truly iconic and Odom’s acting is something to behold. Watching this film, you get a good understanding of why he won the Tony for this role. It’s a breathtaking performance and there are numerous points in the film where Odom delivers a simple look that speaks louder than all of his lyrics combined. The same rings true for Phillipa Soo, who will break your heart as Eliza. Of equal greatness are Jonathan Groff, Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, all of whom make big splashes, with each of them having some iconic solos that are well-captured. The rest of the cast all do good jobs too, with a special shout out to the killer ensemble who get a lot of love from Kail’s camerawork.
The other star, of course, is Miranda’s excellent score. Much has been said about the way he combines traditional Broadway music with modern hip-hop, rap, and pop so it’s no understatement that the music of Hamilton is amazing. And it sounds really good here. A lot of care was clearly put into the film’s mixing, ensuring that all of the actors could be perfectly heard without overpowering Alex Lacamoire’s gorgeous orchestrations. For as much of a mixed bag as the visuals might have been, the audio is beautiful. As a sung-through show, Hamilton‘s score is what takes you from moment to moment and all of that is beautifully captured in this film and remains a highlight of the whole experience. I dare anybody who watches this movie not have at least one of the songs stuck in your head by the time the credits run.
At the end of the day, the Hamilton film is certainly better than nothing. In fact, I’d say it’s frequently great. It’s so nice to get to see a Broadway show as big as Hamilton from the comfort of home. And this film does a great job at capturing just what made Hamilton such a special show in the first place. The cast are all at the top of their games here and it’s an utter joy to have that preserved for all time. While I sometimes found myself deeply frustrated at some of the technical aspects of the film – what was the rhyme or reason between choosing certain camera shots over others – it’s hard to not get sucked into Miranda’s excellent score. Hamilton is one of those shows that’s destined to be a Broadway classic and this film is a great showcase for why. Even more importantly, it’s a great step towards a world where theatre is more accessible to all those who cannot afford a Broadway ticket. The future of the art form is finding a way to maintain the theatrical experience while also broadening it and I feel that Hamilton does this admirably. It’s well worth many watches.
4 out of 5 wands.