Alexander Hamilton’s legacy is a political fantasy, even while considering his questionable moral character. His founding role in the United States is what formed the political praxis we know of today. Behind his rise, from an orphan to one of the most renowned political scholars, was his simple, unquenchable ambition. And what better way to portray this life, of coveted prestige, than an emotionally ringing, power-charged musical? Hamilton, Lin–Manuel Miranda’s brainchild and creation, is an ambitious attempt at chronicling one of the most notoriously turbulent times in politics, and it is a pure, hypnotising spectacle. It is a masterclass for content.
Now, it is not exactly a movie. It is a live recording of the Broadway musical, initially slated for a theatrical release next year. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical has been shot exclusively for a non-Broadway release, with a few hundred microphones, nine cameras, and a blazing live audience (not the kind that would annoyingly distract you from the action). Despite the fact that it would never come even remotely close to a live performance, the stuff of dreams, its Disney+ release still matches the kind of viewing experience I was aching for in the middle of the soul-sucking pandemic. And it is the closest we can come to experiencing this pop-culture phenomenon. A theatrical experience, too, with its carefully engineered sound system, would just be magnificent! It is only a shame that we cannot witness this technical marvel on the big screen first.
There is a clear synergy between its technical prowess and its writing, a definite testament to Miranda as a magical storyteller and a composer. The musical starts before Hamilton even receives an education and ends soon after he dies. In describing this musical, it is rather difficult to demarcate a spoiler territory, for quite a lot of it is common knowledge. But I will try to give away as little as possible. Hamilton, at one point, recites, “In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet.” His life is anything but that. From the moment he avows that he will fight for American independence, he was bogged in political quagmire, threatening a lot of what he loved. Over the long 160 minutes, we see him fall in love, become a parent, deal with his orphanage, fight a war, and fight political battles.
But the musical enters a murky ground in its seeming glorification of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of the US known for his slandering personality, elitism, and his support of a monarchy. In a historical context, Hamilton seems like short-handed fan fiction. And it is a thorny problem, for a story to simply chastise its titular character. Miranda, who performs Hamilton and wrote the musical, however, does not get swept up in the politics of what is right and what is wrong. He is overt in his revisionism of history. People of colour, Black and Brown, play the roles of White folk. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are played by Black actors, and Miranda, himself, is Puerto Rican. The musical reclaims the history that is primarily made by White men. The narrative decolonises the past, literally and figuratively. And it still may not condone, in the eyes of certain viewers, the fact that Hamilton is indeed glorified. But to me, towards the end, the weight of his mistakes surpassed the good he did. He was aptly described as Icarus who flew too close to the sun. His hubris was his undoing.
The characters of Hamilton are what really invigorate the musical. They thump out their lines with great enthusiasm and make for an amusing watch. Daveed Diggs, who plays Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s political rival, is perhaps the most fascinating performer on-screen. He prances around like Childish Gambino in This Is America, and remains fired up at practically all points. But it is his constant duelling and bickering with Hamilton that is played out masterfully — enlivening an already quite-alive musical. And King George, the power-grubbing coloniser of America, played by Jonathan Groff, is the one character I fervently waited for throughout. I constantly beamed when he came on-stage. He is a deliciously wicked sadist who loves saying, “I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” Miranda demystifies the colonisers and monarchs to a bunch of megalomaniac nutcases in an uproariously funny manner.
And while the music lends itself to some great humour, especially during rap battles when Hamilton delivers punches like, “Turn around, bend over, I’ll show you where my shoe fits,” it is also the emotional backbone of the entire chronicle. In an introductory bar scene, he narrates his entire life story and his dreams, what is now considered the American immigrant life, as someone beatboxes in the background — the Apna Time Aayega equivalent of Hamilton. The truly heart-wrenching moments in the musical are its romantic subplots, and for someone who does not know that facet of his life, it comes truly as a shock. The story never stops at his marriage, it dives deep into sexual desire, passion, and heartbreak. Here, the lyrics of the songs convey twice the intensity of what dialogues, alone, would.
A traditional film would only be able to incorporate half as much as what is shown in Hamilton. There is quite a lot to say about Hamilton, especially if his entire life is put on display. And the musical format gives a blistering pace to a story that spans over decades. The rap and hip-hop music, that is anyway supposed to be stylistically and vocally fast, not only expedites the narrative but also causes a surge in adrenaline. Crudely put, it is fast and fun! Within half an hour, Hamilton goes from being a New York outsider to George Washington’s right-hand man for the American Revolution. You have to always be on your toes while watching this — you may just miss a few years of Hamilton’s life if you veer off for a couple of minutes.
Director Thomas Kail does a splendid job of filling the void of the changing set-pieces and backgrounds we see in films. This is a risky format that can lull viewers because of its monotonous uniformity. But the singular stage, that is divinely set up, alone does the job. And the panning cameras, with its close-ups and long shots, are just as authentic here. You take the gaze of the live audience, and also of a theatrical audience. One can often forget the collective effort it takes to put together movies or shows. There is no public attention given to crews and it is only their end product that is visible and out there. Hamilton, which can only function live, gives the necessary limelight to its teams — on-stage and off-stage. Their efforts, rightly, warrant admiration and applause. When the live audience cheers, you will, too. This is their genuine and best attempt at making seats, worth hundreds of dollars, more accessible to the world. Hamilton is an essential viewing, for its craft and message alike.
Hamilton is available on Disney+ Hotstar.