Untold stories are forgotten – and forgotten stories don’t exist. The loss of memory is the ultimate death, an eternal end that finds no witness. But beyond the tyrannies of life and death exists art. It rescues and resurrects, recalls and recreates; it’s the ultimate cheat code.
So, the acclaimed American musical Hamilton, now streaming on Hotstar as a feature film, becomes several things at once: an act of remembrance, a piece of resistance, a musical tribute. It sings the story of an unsung hero and celebrates a complex man whose life mirrored the country he helped form.
Hamilton is about two-fold journeys. The first is of Alexander Hamilton – a young orphan growing up in the Caribbean – who comes to America as a teenager to start a new life. An immigrant landing in a colony of immigrants which, in the midst of a monumental revolution, is on the verge of a new journey. A man without a father eventually becoming one of the Founding Fathers of a powerful nation.
Hamilton is filled with such narrative backslapping, ironies and parallels, and the makers – writer-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail – seem so aware and assured that they play with their material: dropping hints, spilling revelations, connecting dots. In a good piece of art, the whole is more than the sum of parts, but in Hamilton the parts themselves are so arresting – lit with fire and joy and velocity – that the big picture strikes us like a thundering afterthought.
The mechanics of the musical further complements its story: it tells a political story while being political. Hamilton’s major characters – Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson – were prominent White leaders, but here they’re played by Black actors. In a country tainted by slavery and racial segregation, extending to performing arts and cinema – Jim Crow, blackface, white saviours – whose first prominent politicians were White, Hamilton’s casting redefines the conception of a nation.
Besides, Daveed Diggs, playing Jefferson and French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, is excellent, full of blazing wit and charming repartee. Ditto Leslie Odom Jr., the show’s best performer, as Burr, changes dramatic modes with ease, from affable to envious to resentful. These performances carry a stamp of recognition and permanence – so much so that, after watching the musical, my memory has lodged Jefferson and Burr as prominent Black politicians. Many pieces of art depict the inequity of history; Hamilton, a rare gem, corrects it.
There’s considerable tension here, however, at the level of form. How do you receive something like Hamilton, now showing on Hotstar? A Broadway musical that happens to be a film – or a film in the form of a Broadway musical? It’s a difficult question to resolve, due to our differing definitions of, and expectations from, the two mediums.
Can a staged musical approximate cinema, say, if we think about it in terms of a giant long take? But even that sounds simplistic, because our eyes – blinking and moving – invariably perform the functions of editing and cinematography. Besides, a musical like Hamilton – filled with dozens of episodic songs – comes with an in-built rhythm and pause. How do you cut and film something like that, especially when, at most times, you can only film from one side of the stage?
The makers try to infuse the musical with as much cinematic fluidity as they can. The cameras are nimble and eager: they glide to the left and right of the stage, giving the perspective of eavesdropping on this story; there are quite a few low-angle shots, making the statesmen look (literally) grand; some shots are top-down, some frame the characters behind their backs – there’s a lot going on. The cinematographic alacrity finds an able ally in staging; on multiple occasions, a single frame holds different stories.
Given that the movie is assembled from three different performances – and one filmed without an audience – Hamilton is impressively cohesive, propelled by cinematic momentum. The anxious editing, though, is its only glaring flaw. The cuts, far too often, disrupt the film’s rhythm – as if the editor (Jonah Moran) wants to press into our consciousness that we’re watching a film.
But Hamilton’s songs and storytelling redeem its flaws – and some more. The movie spans more than four decades – from Hamilton’s childhood to his political success to his disintegrating marriage to his demise – but it hardly gets tedious. The narrative’s rising and falling beats are accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack that delights and electrifies and informs. Hamilton respects its central character, but it always sees him as a man of layers, someone capable of ingenuity and transgressions, someone who could think of the country and yet not see beyond himself. People are a sum total of infuriating contradictions – the good and bad, the light and dark – and Hamilton contextualises the imperfections of human life with a lot of finesse and nuance.
Further, even while telling his complete story, the musical allows us to do our own writing. So, for instance, we understand early on that Hamilton’s entire life was shaped by not what he had, but what he did not: a family. It’s that desperate urge to fill the void – of never being “satisfied” – that made and broke him. Geniuses are often born from a gnawing lack, and so was Hamilton: restless and ambitious, irritable and combative – someone trying to outrun time and gasping, scaling professional peaks yet plumbing personal lows.
Hamilton was a restless writer. To promote the ratification of the United States constitution, a work later known as The Federalist Papers, he wrote 51 out of its 85 essays in six months. Hamilton cleverly embodies some of that restlessness in its own writing. Its songs often unfold at multiple levels, telling stories of both present and future.
The most memorable example is the number “[I’m not throwing away] My Shot”, where an ambitious Hamilton – who is “just like my country, young, scrappy and hungry” – is bonding with his friends (including Burr), while literally downing shots. It’s an effective, intriguing way to blend the literal and metaphorical, but it’s only towards the climax, where he’s engaged in a duel with Burr, that we understand the full implication of “throwing away my shot”. Examples like these – where the wordplay becomes ravenous and elastic, transcending space and time – run throughout the film.
In the end, though, Hamilton isn’t just about Hamilton. It liberates itself from the individual and locates the essence of his vacuum. It becomes a story about telling a story; about an orphan, deprived and denied, leaving a legacy; about a bystander – his wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo; a graceful performance) – becoming a narrator, rescuing her love from the abyss of oblivion.
Eliza tried immortalising Hamilton, but after her death, he continued battling public amnesia. But art can sometimes act as a divine intervention. It compensates the limitations of life, not just depicting and restoring, but also dignifying and completing. Hamilton is a reassuring evidence that the graveyard of fragmented memories still stirs for justice that rhymes.