Hip-hop hooray! BRIAN VINER reviews hit musical Hamilton as it comes to the small screen… but the Broadway show loses something in translation
Verdict: Too stagey
The hit musical Hamilton rarely gets a mention in the media without the words ‘hit musical’ before it.
Since it opened on Broadway in August 2015, it’s been the hottest ticket in every town it has played in, including London, which caused a rather sweet flurry of excitement in the U.S.
The show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers and a key figure in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
The Hamiltons: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo. Hamilton is manifestly a great theatrical production and it must be wonderful to see it on stage
Evidently they were quite surprised over there to see it bombarded with theatre awards over here. They seem to have thought we might still be smarting about the whole independence thing.
It’s a good job we’re not still nursing a grudge, nearly 250 years on. If we were, we might perceive an added slight in the timing, on the eve of U.S. Independence Day, of the Disney+ release of the film version — which actually is just the Broadway show with cameras pointed at it.
When I say ‘just’, I don’t mean any disrespect. Hamilton is manifestly a great theatrical production and it must be wonderful to see it on stage.
Jonathan Groff as George III
Most of my friends who have, came away dazzled and delighted, especially by the ingenious lyrics. They come in the form of non-stop hip-hop, which, together with a multi-ethnic cast, gives the story of America past a deliberate blast of America present.
A couple of my friends even seem to have memorised all the words, which in truth, for those of us who still haven’t saved enough for tickets (good seats for our family of five would leave about enough change from £1,000 for a small tub each of pistachio ice cream), can get tiresome on a long car journey.
But tricorn hats off to the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the title role in the film.
Working ‘monarchy’, ‘anarchy’ and ‘panicky’ into a rhyming hip-hop arrangement, while at the same time moving the narrative along and delivering a useful history lesson, requires a special kind of genius.
What, though, is it like to watch more than two and a half hours of this (with a minute-long intermission) on screen?
Miranda and director Thomas Kail both pop up at the beginning to tell us why they are doing it.
‘We’re all thinking about what it means to be Americans,’ says Kail, which actually we’re all not, but we’ll forgive him for excluding us.
Since it opened on Broadway in August 2015, it’s been the hottest ticket in every town it has played in, including London, which caused a rather sweet flurry of excitement in the U.S
Miranda explains that the idea is to share the show now stage productions have been halted by Covid-19, as if it’s one big gesture of artistic munificence, which actually it isn’t. If it were, Disney would never have got involved.
Frankly, I regret watching Hamilton on screen. If you have no plans ever to see it on stage but want to know what the fuss is all about, then go for it.
But I was still saving up — and now I’m wondering whether to spend the money on something else, such as a small family saloon. Television compacts the spectacle, undermines it, maligns it, fails to refine it.
But it does leave you talking in hip-hop rhyme, which may or may not have the ring of a good thing.
Enjoy its raw, rap energy and the fun factor
Hamilton, the musical that ricocheted off Broadway and hit the West End three years ago, feels more like a live gig than a stage show, writes the Mail’s theatre critic Patrick Marmion. It’s the kind of act that should be headlining Glastonbury.
Driven by the undoubted excitement of painting U.S. history black, the hip-hop tale of one of America’s Founding Fathers is sensational in more ways than one. If I might venture a rhyme of my own, Alexander Hamilton hits you in the abdomen.
I never had the chance to see it on stage and what surprised me most, watching it on telly, was the sparseness of the set.
There’s not much to occupy the eye or transport the imagination beyond patriotic period costumes in lush red, white and blue. Even the choreography is routine MTV gymnastics: characters illustrate explosions with flailing limbs and breakdance through the War of Independence battle scenes.
The show’s author Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the title role, is more of a karaoke act trying to keep up with his own runaway lyrics.
Phillipa Soo, as his demure wife, reminded my girls of Belle from Beauty And The Beast (so she’ll feel well at home on Disney+).
The show-stealers for me were Jonathan Groff as pouty George III with his camp ‘good riddance!’ numbers and Leslie Odom Jr as Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr, who, like the Devil, has all the best tunes and dances.
Vocally, Hamilton is enormously challenging thanks to the relentless pace, range and rhythm of Miranda’s lines that forever threaten to run out of puff but never quite do.
Songs intertwine all the way through. My 16-year-old already knew most of them, thanks to Spotify, and hummed away alongside my hypnotised ten-year-old. Like me, they were slightly flummoxed by the meandering plot. But who cares? Hamilton remains a phenomenon.
Yay, it’s back to the big screen
Older readers may remember when cinema programmes began with a Wurlitzer organ rising slowly from the orchestra pit, smartly dressed organist already seated and merrily playing.
Warrior girl: Yifei Liu as Mulan
Sadly, that tradition is long gone. But if ever there were a case for reviving it, just for a day, then that day is tomorrow.
Britain’s cinemas are reopening. The Showcase chain is leading the way this weekend, to be followed over the next few weeks by big multiplex groups such as Odeon, Cineworld, Picturehouse and Vue, in readiness for the two major summer releases they hope will attract people back in metre-apart hordes: Disney’s live-action remake of the 1998 animation Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster action thriller, Tenet.
With no big new releases just yet, however, Showcase is screening golden oldies including Back To The Future. The movie-going experience, by contrast, is moving forward to the past.
Foyers will be stripped of their pick ’n’ mix stands. Some snacks will be less readily available. Cinemas will again become mainly forums for watching films, rather than noisy-eating competitions.
We may even see the return of torch-wielding usherettes or their 2020 equivalents, to make sure those social-distancing measures are upheld.
How all this will affect the long-term future of cinemas is anyone’s guess. But undoubtedly it will. Before Covid-19 we were in a boom period for ‘going to the pictures’. The UK box office did more business in 2019 than in any year since 1971, the year of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.
For now, at least, the cinema industry has lost its own golden ticket. More films will be released directly to video-on-demand; audience numbers will be reduced by the need to stay safe. And some of those lovely little independents will be forced out of business.
But it will surely take more than this coronavirus to break up the enduring three-way romance between the British public, great films and the silver screen.
Final pick of the docs that rock
Here are the remaining documentaries in my list of all-time favourites, making 15 in all.
In the next few weeks, I’ll come to my favourite foreign language films. In the meantime, thank you for your continuing feedback at [email protected]
Listen To Britain (1942)
A rousing propaganda film chronicling the sights and sounds of wartime Britain. Still utterly compelling — and you can watch it on YouTube.
Hitsville: The Making Of Motown (2019)
Amazing archive, fantastic interviews. Not always entirely honest about the famous record label, perhaps; but always captivating.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Starkly, darkly, different from most music documentaries, covering The Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour which culminated in violence and death.
Hoop Dreams (1994): A classic, following the ups and downs of two African-American teenagers desperate to become basketball stars
Apollo 11 (2019)
A happier story from 1969 — incredible footage from the Nasa archives of the Moon landing and the excitement back on Earth (two of the crew members, left). The definitive account.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
A classic, following the ups and downs of two African-American teenagers desperate to become basketball stars.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
Great title, great film. It shifts the spotlight from stars such as Sting and Springsteen to their unheralded backing singers.
Howard’s Way (2019)
As a lifelong fan of Everton FC, I couldn’t leave out this terrific film about the club’s mid-1980s heyday under its most successful manager, Howard Kendall.
Gimme Shelter (1970): Starkly, darkly, different from most music documentaries, covering The Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour which culminated in violence and death