THE SHOW “Hamilton’s America”
WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Friday on WNET/13
THE GRADE A-
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Somewhat like the Broadway musical, this portrait of the musical is a fusion — of history and Broadway. It follows star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, 36, in the months before “Hamilton” previewed at the Public Theater, in July 2015, to its momentous opening. Lots of interviews, including with Ron Chernow, whose 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton was both source material and inspiration for Miranda. Cast members, including Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Christopher Jackson (George Washington) and Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson) are also interviewed, as well as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
MY SAY Because the world now appears to be hopelessly divided into two camps — those who revere “Hamilton” and those who still inexplicably have never even heard of it — “Hamilton’s America” is clearly intended to breach the gulf. It succeeds, and then some. Watch and learn, or (if already a fan) watch and learn a great deal more. This is one of those films that has a little something for everyone — history buffs, musical buffs, Hamilton buffs or even stray bystanders who might have wondered what Broadway’s most celebrated star had in his refrigerator before he was famous. (No need to wait for the answer — ketchup and a bottle of tonic, the latter used to make a gin and tonic).
Like “Hamilton,” “Hamilton’s America” is a movable feast of ideas, music, historic arcana, ideals, patriotism and politics. Everything — and everyone — is here because “Hamilton” pretty much touched on everything. But it should come as little surprise that the best moments arrive when the man at the center of the stage does. Defying fate or instead choosing to ignore it, Miranda began taping this film many months before “Hamilton” arrived at the Richard Rodgers in 2015. At the outset of “Hamilton’s America,” he says “everything in my life is under construction” — referring to both the play and a new apartment — and wraps his film with the observation that “I feel like Hamilton chose me [and] reached out of the Chernow book and wouldn’t let me go until I told his story.”
But the marvel of the pre-famous Miranda and now the household-famous one is that nothing seems to have changed at all. They’re exactly the same guy — passionate, optimistic, joyful and fully alert to the possibilities of life and (yes) also of fate. There’s something viscerally inspirational about the Miranda on full display here. That’s what’s best too.
Miranda and “Hamilton’s America” are generous with much of the creative back story, too. Hip-hop artist Nas is interviewed (briefly) and also members of The Roots, who offer insights into the language of rap and how it’s layered into “Hamilton.” Stephen Sondheim and Sondheim librettist John Weidman also recall the advice they gave to a research-beleaguered Miranda in the throes of wrestling a complex story into a cohesive, entertaining one: “You reach a point,” says Sondheim, “where the research is over, then invent the characters.”
But “Hamilton’s America,” while a feast can also be a sprawling feast. Politicians and policy makers pop up on occasion to illuminate viewers about the far-reaching impact of Alexander Hamilton. They also tend to bring it to a screaming halt. Besides Chernow and Miranda, the cast members are fully up to the job of telling us what we need to know about the characters they play, and why they matter. Everyone else just adds to the running time.
BOTTOM LINE A big, generous portrait of the celebrated Broadway musical with some redundant window dressing by politicians.