Nabokov railed against unfinished work; he compared it to “passing around samples of one’s sputum.” He was a perfectionist, and probably wouldn’t have had much time for today’s competitive world of streaming. It was a big surprise when Disney brought forward their version of the hit musical an entire year to make it a summer 2020 tent-pole release. The biggest Broadway musical in decades, it’s of sure-fire interest to historians, musical-fans and alike. And yet, as my time-line fills with five star reviews of this filmed version of the theatre production, is it OK to feel, well, underwhelmed by the product offered here?
Filmed back in the halcyon, trouble-free days of 2016, Thomas Kail’s film was co-produced by star Lin-Manuel Miranda, who repeats his success as Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant who plays a key role in the American Revolution. Rapping at the speed of a high-speed modem, Hamilton enjoys romance but also conflict, notably with King George III, (Jonathan Groff). The songs, immaculately crafted, are the big attraction, from the rousing My Shot to the comic lament You’ll Be Back. Add in voluminous costumes, political relevance and lively choreography, and you’ve got a sure-fire winner, right?
Except Hamilton’s time may have come and gone. If Disney had dropped a full feature-film of Hamilton on us this summer, that would have been quite a sensation in our politically charged time. But a filmed record of a theatre production, with mics in the audience to pick up a guide-track of laughs and cheers, with visible head-sets on the cast, and with performances aimed at the gallery rather than the camera, the result is less than cinematic and does not encourage the suspension of disbelief. Long shots reveals the artificial bank of lights above the stage, while close-ups put you rather too close to the spittle dribbling down Groff’s face. There is an audience for filmed theatre for sure, but it’s considerably smaller than the audience for a proper film, and that’s where this version of Hamilton seems to have thrown away its shot.
This version of Hamilton is, to date, the only way to see the production in my country; no touring production ever came here, even though the central character has Scottish roots. The line ‘”son of a whore and a Scotsman” comes up early, but no-one had any interest is seeing how the Scots race might feel about being the recipients of such a derogatory slur. After years of such thwarted anticipation, it would have been quite a challenge to make a lavish, accessible and potentially game-changing film of Hamilton, but that challenge is shyly ducked here. Instead, the camera is largely rooted with the rubes in the stalls, and Hamilton moves directly from the rarefied $300-a-ticket environs of Broadway to entertain the kids on Disney+ without ever seeking to engage the mass audience it’s clearly intended for. A film version of Hamilton is still due, and this neither-fish-nor-fowl version, capturing theatrics not adapted for film, isn’t what we need right now.