Director – Thomas Kail
Cast – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr, Daveed Diggs, Phillipa Soo, Christopher Jackson, Anthony Ramos
At a time when the debate on the merits of streaming versus a theatre-going experience is at its peak, Hamilton struts in with a solution. Filmed in 2016 under the direction of Thomas Kail, featuring the original Broadway cast merely two weeks before they left, Hamilton the movie captures the joy of a communal experience, and retains the spirit of the production. We’ve got front row seats to history, in more ways than one.
The two-hour-forty-minute film begins with a short introduction by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Kail, in which they acknowledge the sorry state of current affairs — politically and culturally — and offer the movie almost as a gift to the world. But what neither mentions, understandably, is that Disney paid through the nose for it. The same platform that made headlines in India for reportedly shelling out around Rs 100 crore each to stream a couple of big-ticket films, paid $75 million for Hamilton. That’s over Rs 550 crore. A bigger sum has never been paid for a completed film, Deadline estimates.
Watch the Hamilton trailer here
And for good reason. After its Broadway debut in 2015, Hamilton quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, albeit one that very few had actually seen. It was the hottest ticket in town, with seats going for upwards of $500. Even I had the complete soundtrack downloaded on my iPod.
But that’s the beauty of streaming. It dismantles cultural and economic barriers and creates a level playing field — both for artistes and audiences. I could never afford to watch Hamilton live, but now I can at least experience it. Similarly, audiences in far-flung corners of the world are no longer at the mercy of dominant sources of entertainment; they have options now, and a means to escape cultural confines. Hamilton is a story about democracy that democratises art.
On paper, a hip-hop musical about an American Founding Father — the ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore’ — might sound slightly alienating, especially to foreign ears. However, Miranda’s genius as a wordsmith, and the infectious energy of the show transforms this alienating idea into something that is beautifully and fiercely relevant.
It is a story about immigrants — outsiders who through sheer skill and ingenuity succeeded in laying the foundations of a nation. And none was more skilled than the self-declared ‘smartest in the room’, Alexander Hamilton.
Miranda’s gimmick — if it can even be called that — is to cast actors of colour to play white men (and women) with a history of racism, sexism and xenophobia, and have them communicate in the language of the oppressed: Rap. I can’t pretend to have the perspective to comment on these matters, but I can, as a cinema lover, admire the art.
Filmed with nine cameras, reportedly shrouded under sheets to not distract the live audience that paid handsomely for the privilege, director Kail brings an intimacy to the show that would have otherwise been impossible to replicate. On certain occasions, the cameras appear to be dancing with the actors on stage; gliding and swaying to the poetry of Miranda’s lyrics. You can see the droplets of sweat forming on the heads of Leslie Odom Jr (who plays Hamilton’s rival, Aaron Burr) and Christopher Jackson (George Washington). Jonathan Groff’s spit, meanwhile, makes a strong case for a best supporting actor nomination.
It’s a seamless transfer, one that highlights individual performances as well as the opulence of the stage. And it’s nice to feel involved after such a long time; to hear the audiences’ applause after every show-stopper and laugh with them every time Daveed Diggs steals the scene. It feels good to cheer when Washington makes his grand entrance, and to chuckle when he hands Lafayette and Hamilton a couple of mics in debates meant to mimic rap battles.
Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr.
But there’s an urgency to the show that makes it vital to our current times, when the lines between heroes and villains, good and bad seems to be blurring with every passing day; when ideas of gender and race are being looked at with a new lens.
The true tragedy of Hamilton goes beyond what happens to the title character. Miranda makes the astute decision to elevate Burr, who in any other version of this story would have been relegated to the villain’s role, to a parallel lead. Hamilton addresses themes of jealousy and betrayal and explores the chain of events that sent two men on a collision course with each other, in a manner that reminded me of the cult classic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
“Love doesn’t discriminate between sinners and saints,” Burr sings in the pop ballad Wait for It. But the poor man doesn’t realise that history does.