Hamilton 2020- no award

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.


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  1. Sure, agree with what you say here, and yes, there’s value in a great recorded performance; I’ve been to see plenty of good material, NTS Hamlet, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, but never felt that it should be reviewed as cinema, even if some effort has been made to recapture the theatre experience. But Hamilton has been playing to elite crowds, and now drops straight to sing-a-long kids time-passer without touching the mainstream that it feels obviously designed to appeal to. This show does have a ‘ridiculous reputation’ but it’s becoming a distinctly alienating one for those who might potentially be interested in what the show’s message might be. I’m tired of being told ‘you had to be there’ about something I never got the chance to see, as if it’s over now and I’ve missed it. If it was that good, it would make a great movie musical, but instead, we get Cats.

  2. It’s definitely more of a recording of a theater show than a legitimate film. But I think there’s a lot of value in being able to preserve original theater productions in this way, because you do lose a lot in the transition from theater to film, and not every theater production is adaptable to film.

    With that said, you do lose a lot in the recording, unless you somehow tailor make it for the camera, and not a live audience. “Hamilton” suffers from what any recorded theater production would, namely in the fact that its production, from its vocals, to the way its actors exaggerate their actions, to its makeup, effects, and lighting, are — as my high school drama teacher would say it — made for grandma in the back of the theater, and not for viewers back home.

    I am wary of the great expectations people put on seeing this live in their neck of the woods, as there is so much expectation put on it, especially because the original Broadway production’s cast and soundtrack are so iconic, that I don’t think there’s any way local actors can properly live up to the show’s ridiculous reputation.

  3. Thanks, now I understand better the comments here and elsewhere; I was fortunate to see it at original theatre in NY, Before tickets cost $300-1000, so in also watching Disney version, and enjoying sound track, I’m perhaps overlaying live play on top of this version and still seeing roses when some are seeing grey haired dandelions.

      • Fair enough; my sense of humor is too deadpan anyway, and I should probably rethink it.

        That being said, my original comments have more to do with (1) I’ve really wanted to see Hamilton live on Broadway for a long time, and (2) the immense politically correct adoration of the musical’s subject-matter by left-wing journalists in the US I otherwise like (e.g. NYT, Vox, etc.). People treat this thing like it’s the second coming of Christ, and when I found out a “mere” recording of it was releasing on Disney+, I was crushed. Either make a whole new production designed for cinema, or see it live. Everything else is a half measure.

        • Agreed on all counts. The concept is reduced, the brand tarnished for now. This was a potential game-changer, and will get exposure at Disney ; maybe it’ll influence another generation, but there’s a vast majority of today’s adults who won’t look at recorded theatre any more than they’d watch a subtitled movie. And yes, the crushing adoration in the press drains enthusiasm. Maybe the show’s makers are content to reach a metropolitan elite, but that’s a real waste of a hot property.

  4. Always good to have your throw your oar in. LMM is rightly garlanded for creating his own version of Hamilton, not the one I studied during my thesis on US politics, but personalised and made for now. So that’s why I feel that right now, in 2020, we should be looking at a full movie musical and not a record of a stage performance.

    I wish LMM had fast-tracked it for a mainstream movie, rather than performing My Shot as a party trick on talk shows and starring in Mary Poppins. Maybe in 2016 he didn’t see the need for a movie, but we really could use a rallying point right now, IMHO. As you say, we have a charged climate, and one that we’re struggling to change. Cancel culture tends to take down easy targets, not address the real issues behind them.

    Scots have not had a chance to see the actual musical, LMM has never licenced it for performance here, so we’re excluded from any debate about Hamilton, which is a shame. I’ve bought the soundtrack, and read the playscript, and I’m all in favour of historical imagination. But this isn’t an actual film, the choreography is obscured, the performances not modulated. It will preach to the converted. The final stage of creating art is reaching an audience, and Hamilton’s audience, while sizeable, will be restricted to theatre-goers and Disney kids, skipping out the oridinary man/woman/person in the street. Voters who might change the course of the next election, or beyond. That’s the shot I feel LMM has missed. It’s a theatrical game-changer, but LMM doesn’t seem confident that it might do the same in cinemas, or has been advised against. Who knows?

    I’m going for light before heat, but that’s just a hunch… Thanks as always for your contribution to the debate.

  5. Hmmm, many of your points are sagely valid regarding film/not film, documentary/not doc…and we see multiple worlds/views–onstage, audience, and a third that is confusing/antagonizing folks that IMO should be the most important view–that of the creator LMM. This is HIS fabulous fictionalized version of Hamilton, a man that feared death–was so complex. Yes, in the Disney version weeds are visible, so is the beating heart of Hamilton,which as you point out, you’d not otherwise get to see. This is LMM’s historical imagination he’s sharing with those that are interested and it’s brilliant, artsy, refreshing, rousing, snappy… Those currently flapping gums & labeled woke or cancel culture remind me of the 3 Greek Graeae sis’s–they shared one eye between them.
    If you follow the logic of political correctness all the way back… we should return the US to its indigenous folks & ship everyone back to country of origin. Apologies if I sound frustrated; the current online climate feels like the Puritans are trying to paint a scarlet letter on Hamilton and every person that made a past mistake, went with the flow, or debated the validity of the popular sentiment of the moment. I also recall when the Taliban destroyed 2 beautiful Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001. The world was appalled. To me, Hamilton is neither fish nor foul; it’s a platypus.
    We are damn, darling flawed beings that interpret, err, fall down and die or pick ourselves up and learn. Our failings are things of beauty and pain. I’m grateful LMM shared his vision, experimented with inclusion, and told HIS imaginative tale and message–that Hamilton was a character, that America and its denizens are open to interpretation, new forms of expression, inclusion, opportunity as new evidence/info is brought to light–not heat. What comes lst light or heat by the way?
    I’m not sure I follow your comment RE what Scots think–when does a truth become a slur and a slur become unspeakable? He was bluntly a bastard, too soon an orphan, & foreign born. His Scot Laird father (allegedly) didn’t want much to do with him. One last question, you say this isn’t what we need now? Sincerely, what do you think we do need?
    “There are seasons in every country when noise and impudence pass for worth; in popular commotions especially, the clamors of factious men are often mistaken for patriotism. ” A Hamilton

    • I’m just not keen on the aesthetics of filmed records of stage musicals… I do like Hamilton the musical, and the above article expresses my frustration that a proper film of it that might have reached a larger audience than a bald recording of a stage play would. Where does this article express any sentiment about immigrants or people of color?

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