Monday, July 6, 2020

Film Review: Hamilton

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I don't think there is a Broadway musical that has been more hyped than Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton.  When the touring production came to my city, the tickets were so ridiculously expensive that I missed out on seeing it.  So it was with great curiosity that I watched the movie on Disney+ a few days ago to see if it lived up to the the bar that it set.

And boy did it ever!

Hamilton is one of the greatest musicals of all time.  I would put it up there with Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, and The Phantom of the Opera.  It deserves all of its accolades.

The musical is about the founding father Alexander Hamilton (Miranda).  It attempts to encapsulate his entire life from his birth in the Caribbean to his death at in a duel by his rival Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).  Along the way, we his friendship with the revolutionaries Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), John Lurens (Anthony Ramos), and Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) through his involvement in the war under George Washington (Chris Jackson).  But the story also delves deep into his personal life with his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) and her sister Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry).  

But throughout, the heart of the story he and his foil Burr.  We see in the men two stark contrasts.  They are both ambitious.  But Burr plays the game of politics, holding his true beliefs close to the chest and learns how to tell men what they want to hear.  Hamilton, on the other hand, cannot help but make his mind known.  He has no time for niceties and will always tell you where he stands and if you don't live up to his ideals.  It becomes a constant source of envy that despite his abrasive nature, Hamilton seems to achieve more success than Burr.

But let us return to the main point: why is this musical so beloved?

The key to understanding this is that the primary purpose of any dramatic art, but most particularly in a musical, is that it must make you feel something deeply.  All other considerations must be secondary to the emotional impact of the musical.  And this is why Hamilton is a work of genius.  

I am not a big fan of hip-hop.  Watching the first half of the show, I would say that it caused me to greatly admire the skill involved in making it.  The production values are top-notch.  The choreography is fantastic.  The performances are also excellent.  But if the entire show were just like that first half, then Hamilton would have achieved greatness.  The hip-hop styling of the first half capture that aggressive and active tone of youth, with all of its drama and bravado.  But in the second half, we begin to see emerge a more complete portrait of Hamilton's entire life.  The bravado gives way to betrayal, disappointment, and tragedy.  This is the magic and the power of the show: it lowers your emotional guard by and then hits you with emotional wallop.  For the last hour, I found myself openly weeping several times.

Allow me to elaborate.  One of the things that is often overlooked in the reviews I've read for this show is how utterly masculine it is.  This is where the hip-hop stylings really help the tone of the show.  As I said, I'm not a fan of hip-hop, but even its biggest detractors would acknowledge that it tends to be a intensely masculine form of artistic expression.  The main revolutionaries are all very manly men, full of courage and ready to do righteous violence.  Burr is portrayed as cautious, but he is never portrayed as cowardly (until perhaps the end).  George Washington stands as a giant.  Even in his even-handed carefulness, he is clearly a man of action.  This is all juxtaposed to the completely effete and effeminate King George III (Jonathan Groff) who is a show-stealing comedic character that is so loathsome in his lack of masculinity.

But the show is not a simple glorification of the masculine.  In the second act, we see how these qualities, if not tempered with virtue, especially the kind offered by the feminine, can lead to destruction.  There is a solid thru-line from the "young, scrappy, and hungry" Hamilton of the first act to the devastated, haunted Hamilton of the final scenes.  And yet, even in this, there we get the sense that there is wisdom gained in the suffering.  Hamilton makes mistakes that cause so much destruction.  And in the show's most amazing song, "It's Quiet Uptown," you get a glimpse of transcendent beauty.  I loved every part of this song.  But I was most amazed and moved by these lines, after Hamilton has experienced a great tragedy:

I spend hours in the garden
I walk alone to the store
And it's quiet uptown
I never liked the quiet before
I take the children to church on Sunday
A sign of the cross at the door
And I pray
That never used to happen before

His sins have brought him low.  But instead of breaking him, they have humbled him.  And the power of that moved more than most anything I've seen on stage.

Speaking of the stage, Disney was very smart to make this movie a "concert" version of the full stage musical instead a full cinematic film like 2012's Les Miserables.  I get the distinct impression that Hamilton would not translate to this style nearly as well.  The show has a deceptively simple set that actually contains hidden complexities to allow rapid scene changes.  The production design is a strange combinations of anachronistic and time-appropriate styles.  The costumes and props are all of the period, but the behavior, hairstyles, language all belong to the modern era.  There is a special kind of artificiality to live-theater that allows us to accept more readily a story's lack of reality.  Making this a cinematic endeavor would draw too much attention to the anachronisms.  The fact that no attempt is made to make the cast look like the historical figures they represent has no impact on the play if you buy into its emotional core.  And when you do, you are dazzled by all of the technical craft on display on stage.

The performances and singing is also outstanding.  Soo is amazing as Eliza.  Her song "Burn" is so devastating in its hurt and betrayal.  Goldsberry's Angelica conveys such sharpness and stifled sadness that her song "Satisfied" is like a cathartic explosion.  Odom Jr. is every bit a match for Miranda's Hamilton and even though he is the "villain" of the story I could not help but feel constant sympathy for him.  Jackson's Washington has a deep an commanding voice which does its best to cover up his deep-seated anxieties at knowing only he can get the job done but not sure if he can do it.  But everything centers around Miranda.  His performance is appropriately theatrical, almost going a little over the top.  But in the final act, there is a moment when he has such a look of gratitude mixed with utter shame that was so honest and devastating.

While I try to keep current year issues out of movie reviews, Hamilton is a very timely film.  The founding fathers are portrayed not as distant demi-gods.  They are great men who are also flawed like all of us.  But those flaws do not stop them from being recognized as great.  Hamilton leaves a legacy that is in some ways divisive, but even his enemies admit of his impact.  There is hopefully something in Hamilton that could unite people of different worldviews.  Maybe this could be some of the common pop culture space where we can all meet each other and talk.  

Hamilton left me emotionally drained in a good way.  When it was over, I felt like I didn't just watch a musical, but that I had an experience.

And that is the highest compliment I can give a musical.


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