Like a Fourth of July firework, the movie version of “Hamilton” bursts forth with color and spectacle, bottling the emotional fire that made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning masterpiece and a cross-cultural hit.
Miranda’s collaborator Thomas Kail, who directed both the stage version and this movie, makes the smart move of rendering “Hamilton” in its purest, original form, from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. Shot with multiple cameras during two performances in June 2016, with Miranda in the title role and with most of the original cast — and with close-ups and crane shots taken without an audience present — the movie harnesses the evocative lighting, surrealistic staging and hip-hop inventiveness.
The story, taken from Ron Chernow’s biography of America’s first Treasury secretary, follows Hamilton as he goes from a penniless rabble-rouser to Revolutionary War fighter, moving up as secretary to Gen. George Washington (Christopher Jackson) — then, after the war, becoming part of President Washington’s cabinet, where squabbles with rival Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and his own hubris lead to his political downfall.
Hamilton’s life runs in parallel to that of Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), whose reticence and hesitation contrasts with Hamilton’s brash, heart-on-his-sleeve passion. Their long rivalry ultimately brings them both to the dueling ground at Weehawken, N.J.
And the play chronicles the eternal love triangle of Hamilton, his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and her older sister — and Hamilton’s intellectual foil — Angelica Schuyler (Renee Elise Goldsberry).
By capturing the play as performed, the movie gets so many details that would be otherwise lost: the physical comedy when Miranda’s Hamilton challenges a hapless orator to a debate; the swagger when Hamilton and Burr consider which Schuyler sister each might seduce; or the practical split-screen of Hamilton and Burr each contemplating new fatherhood during the lullaby “Dear Theodosia.”
Through the close-ups, Kail neatly dissects the play’s trickiest numbers, like the Act I finale “Non-Stop,” to weave through multiple characters without interrupting the flow of music and movement. The onstage camerawork also captures the sly dealing Hamilton must engage in in “The Room Where It Happens,” Jackson’s soulful gravity as Washington, and even the spittle coming out of the mouth of mad King George III (Jonathan Groff).
All that would have been lost in a conventional cinematic adaptation. Take any one of the three duels in the story. In a typical movie shoot, the production might have set up on location on some grassy hill, clothed the actors in expensive costumes, and deployed computer effects to show the bullets leaving the duelists’ pistols. And it would have been just a tenth as interesting, or emotionally compelling, as the choreography and lighting that crystallizes the moment in the stage version.
Also, if this were a regular movie, the producers may have disrupted the casting, for fear an audience would not accept a single actor playing multiple roles. And how would anyone make Diggs choose which show-stopping role to play — Lafayette in the first act or Jefferson in the second?
The choice to shoot after the cast had been working together for more than a year, off-Broadway and then at the Rodgers, let the audience see the performers in their stride. By then, they knew when to pause for a laugh and when to hit the emotional beats for maximum effect. There are moments that resonate here better than in the cast album, which was recorded just after the play’s Broadway premiere.
Seeing this “Hamilton,” in which people of color play the greatest rebels of American history, feels particularly resonant at this moment in our history. In this world turned upside-down by pandemic and civil unrest and endless political squabbles, an electrifying story about people arguing, fighting and loving passionately for freedom, family and legacy is just what we need.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant hip-hop musical gets the filmic presentation it deserves, catching the energy and passion of the stage version.
Where • Streaming on Disney+.
When • Starting Friday, July 3, at 1 a.m. Mountain time.
Rated • PG-13 for language and some suggestive material.
Running time • 162 minutes.