I actually wrestled with reviewing this when I went to see the show in London last year, but after much thought, I decided that my critical qualifications are stretched to their limits enough when I cover films, and extending it to potentially annoy the theatre world too might just be pushing my luck too far; after all, I know what a ruthless bunch musical theatre people can be, you’d find my body down an alleyway covered in glitter and doing jazz hands before you could say ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’.
I joke in my usually lovable way, as I’ve been involved myself in musical theatre myself for a good while now, so I know that some people involved are not only ruthless, but they’re respectful too, especially the mythical creatures known as ‘stage managers’.
Yes, we’re skirting around the parameters of film today, as we look at a live recording of the musical phenomenon Hamilton, which was released on Disney+ last Friday to an overwhelmingly positive response.
Now, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, I’ve actually had the pleasure of seeing Hamilton in person, so I already knew I was in for a treat, and more importantly for the context of this review, I was already a fan of Hamilton, making my decision to review it a potentially perilous one; do I jeopardise my critical integrity (perish the thought) and write a fawning review of the work as a whole, or do I focus on its merits as a film, and compare it to similar live recordings of musicals?
Well, after some thought, I thought I’d go down the latter path. Firstly because it would be incredibly redundant to heap praise upon a show that is fast becoming a cultural touchstone, and a legitimate theatrical revolution, but mainly because my site is dedicated to film reviews, in fact, it’s in the name of the site, so focusing on the film aspects of this release is, in my opinion, the best way to go about things. It may result in a shorter review than usual, given that I am not going to explore the production as a whole, so I’m going to try and make the most of what I have.
But, to say I will ignore the productions overall merits would do it a disservice, so let’s get the overawing praise for Hamilton‘s distinctions out of the way quickly so I can get to the nub of the matter.
Hamilton is, and I know I’ve used this word already, a revolution in musical theatre, as well as a revelation. A breath of fresh air for casual, or die-hard, Broadway fans, it infuses hip-hop, jazz, and traditional musical theatre into an awe-inspiringly polished package. I said when I saw it in London that it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre (for context, I’ve seen my share of musicals, although not a massive number) and I stand by that. It is, in itself, both historic AND historical, telling the tale of America’s independence through a previously overlooked man’s standpoint, and it does this by reflecting everything America is (or rather, could be) today; vibrant, diverse and cutting edge.
Its soundtrack has become a work of great cultural significance in itself, one that can be enjoyed freely without the context of the show, but is only enhanced further by experiencing it in person. You can follow the story through the album and picture the show in your head well enough, but it is only through seeing the ingenious staging and incredible choreography in person that it all comes together as a complete, nearly perfect, package.
So, all that being said, let’s move on to the ‘film’ aspect of Hamilton.
There has been a pleasing trend in recent years of filming live musicals in a more cinematic manner, utilising crane shots and close-ups to fully utilise the best of both the film world and the theatre world into one package. While previous attempts at recording live theatre shows have had a tendency to be rather dry affairs, just documenting the action from afar with multiple cameras, this newer approach really helps with replicating the immersion you would feel at the theatre.
Good examples of this practice would be the Miss Saigon recording from a few years ago (which is also recommended viewing) as well as the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie recording that has played in cinemas a few times over the last few years, and now we can add Hamilton to that list.
Its camerawork is slick and doesn’t feel too intrusive on the overall experience, which is another key component to successfully recording a theatrical performance, I don’t want the filing to seem like it’s getting in the way of the performance.
It’s also not to overactive, as on the other side of the scale, some similar films can suffer from too many camera cuts, making the presentation feel hyperactive; I like a few cinematic touches to my theatrical recordings, but I also want it to know when to settle into an angle and just show us what’s happening, and Hamilton finds just the right balance between the two.
The cinematic flair is best seen in some of the smaller character moments, utilising techniques like close-ups that show the emotion in a characters face, a touch that can be lost from general theatre to a lot of the audience, in this respect, it’s using the best techniques of film to enhance its presence as a stage show, and a film in itself, without stepping over the mark of being too cinematic, so we still feel like we’re watching a stage show.
One of the things that worried me about Disney’s acquisition of the rights to this film was in how they might censor it. For those unfamiliar with the show, Hamilton does have uses of strong language and sexual themes, a big no-no for a Disney production, in other words. I worried that the need to appear on such a family-friendly platform might result in the film being carved up to be acceptable to Disney’s image.
I’m happy to report that my fears weren’t realised, and the censorship doesn’t just leave the production intact, in fact, it’s barely noticeable at all. There was a potential for any changes to be intrusive to the ‘flow’ of the show, given that it’s ‘sung-through’ (there is no dialogue, it’s all sung/rapped) but only in one moment did I actually notice that anything had been cut out, and while it was obvious, it didn’t harm the flow of the song.
Another tiny issue I had with the translation to film was that the music underneath the singing/rapping was mixed very quietly, the vocals were as clear as a bell, and were incredibly capture, but the music underneath it occasionally got lost in the shuffle, and while I’m sure this won’t be an issue to most, I’m sure the seasoned Hamilton veteran will notice what I’m talking about.
It appears that I was also wrong to be worried about this review ending up being shorter than usual, as I managed to find enough to talk about to fill out my usual review length, and it could have been much longer too, had I completely let myself get lost in singing the show’s praises, but I’m sure many readers will be glad of the restraint, as me talking up Hamilton‘s virtues might have stretched into a few thousand words.
Even if you don’t think it’ll be your thing, you owe it to yourself to watch Hamilton, as an important lesson of history and a show of unity in all the world can be if we embrace our differences, it is a true phenomenon, and I’m so glad that millions more now have the chance to experience it.
Before I sign off on this review, I would like, if I may, to talk frankly about the current state of the arts in the situation we find ourselves in.
Every time you turn on your TV, or put on a DVD, or listen to the radio, you’re experiencing the work of an artist. A work that may have taken years of their life, and may enrich yours no end. Right now, as the world struggles through a crisis and we all have to face widespread changes, artists are really struggling.
Here in the U.K. no government support has (at time of writing) been given to the arts, and many theatres, music venues, and maybe even cinemas, face financial peril, or perhaps even total closure; and not everyone working in these industries have made millions from their professional lives, there are performers, backstage crew and many other professions tied into the arts whose job prospects have evaporated, and they do a job that enriches thousands, if not millions, of lives.
So, I ask that you spare a thought for artists, for actors, directors, musicians, and even the cleaners that make up the wonderful world of arts and culture. Without them, our TVs would be blank, our radios silent, and our cinemas bare; so sign petitions, donate to appeals if you can, because if we lose the arts, then the battle against COVID-19 isn’t really worth it would partially be lost, as we’d lose something that is really worth fighting for. Thank you.