Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s hip-hop musical Hamilton is an unqualified masterpiece: a once-in-a-generation combination of brilliant writing, indelible performances, and spectacular music that became a genuine pop culture phenomenon and crossed over into the mainstream.
So it feels strange to say that director Thomas Kail‘s filmed version of Hamilton, which was shot with the original cast at the height of the show’s fame in 2016 and which debuts on Disney+ this Friday, left me slightly underwhelmed. As a big fan of the musical who has listened to the cast recording of the album tons of times through, it’s legitimately amazing for a high-definition version of this show people paid hundreds of dollars to see in person to simply pop up on a streaming service, accessible for the low price of $6.99 a month. But as the credits rolled, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling of being just a little bit disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong: there are several transcendent moments on display here. I felt privileged to witness songs like “Satisfied,” “Wait For It,” and “One Last Time” because of the powerhouse vocal performances of the actors singing them. Most of the time, attaching visuals to these songs I know so well enhanced my experience because actually seeing the performers, chests heaving and sweaty from performing choreography while singing, gave me a newfound appreciation for the disembodied voices that have been branded into my brain. But occasionally, a lighting or camera choice actually lessened my enjoyment of a song. Take “Burn,” a second act steamroller of a song by Phillipa Soo‘s Eliza Hamilton: that song is normally one of the most emotionally potent of the entire show, but in the filmed version, half of Soo’s face is bathed in a blue light that distracted from her excellent vocals.
But the movie – which, in case you somehow don’t know, tracks the rise and eventual death of Alexander Hamilton through memorable raps and indelible show tunes, all with a cast of Black and Brown actors in the roles of America’s founding fathers – also provides close-ups that even those who paid to be in the front row could never have seen. That’s easily the best aspect of this filmed version, and the benefits of those close-ups are undeniable.
During “The Story of Tonight” in the first act, the camera lingers on a shot of John Laurens (Anthony Ramos) staring longingly into Hamilton’s eyes that feels specifically designed as a gift to the Tumblr crowd who have been shipping those two characters since this show debuted. (Note: their obsession may be backed by actual history.)
Jonathan Groff is hilarious as King George, and while his songs are as funny as ever, the close-ups reveal several incredible moments of face acting. Groff has total control of every blink and twitch, and he peppers his performance with almost imperceptible sneers and infrequent wild-eyed micro-moments which reveal George’s fury while still largely maintaining a royal composure.
Daveed Diggs totally steals the back half of the show as Thomas Jefferson, and it’s an absolute joy to see him use his long, gangly limbs to dramatically prance and high-kick his way across the stage. And speaking of the stage, now’s the time to give quick shout-outs to set designer David Korins, whose deceptively simple design manages to be the perfect setting for every scene without making any drastic changes, and to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, whose work helps transform that same stage into battlefields, taverns, street corners, and more through nothing more than the dance moves of the talented folks who don’t get their own spotlight moment in the show.
My favorite shot of the movie comes in the moments before the bullet from Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) reaches Hamilton in their duel. The climactic scene is a riff on the idea of a person’s life flashing before their eyes, and there’s one shot in particular where Hamilton reaches toward an apparition of his wife Eliza, her arm outstretched at him before she turns and walks away, and the camera is lined up so that as soon as she clears the frame, the only thing left is Burr with his gun pointed straight at Hamilton. It’s the type of cinematographic choice I wish there were more of in this film, one that highlights a relationship or spacial dynamic that can be lost in the depths of the stage from an audience’s perspective. In a movie, the camera can go anywhere, but this isn’t a movie – not really. This is a stage show with cameras capturing the action, and while I appreciated seeing it, I felt like there were missed opportunities to editorialize a little more and draw deeper visual connections than what the proscenium of a stage could provide.
It seems as if Kail, who directed both the stage show and the movie, got a little lost in the transition from stage to screen. If he made the choice not to editorialize too much with the shot selection, you’d think that would mean the camera would be far enough back for us to experience what it was like to be in the “room where it happens” for the recording on these nights. But he’s maybe a bit too enamored with the close-ups, and there are several moments when you wish he’d back up a little and show us the whole stage so we can get a better sense of what the audience is “supposed” to see.
That’s the odd thing about this version of Hamilton. It’s miraculous that we get to see it at all, so I feel like a jerk for even bringing up its shortcomings. The whole experience is sort of like getting a 90% off coupon to the most expensive steak joint in town, looking forward to your reservation for months, and then, when you finally get there, thinking the food is mostly okay. You’re glad you went, and it was still a very good steak…but it somehow wasn’t quite what you hoped it’d be.
/Film Review: 7 out of 10
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