With its PG-13 rating, this is the most adult movie to appear behind the Walt Disney castle logo. It’s certainly raunchy in ways Uncle Walt wouldn’t have approved, most notably in depicting the adulterous events that led to the Reynolds pamphlet, a Sidney Sheldon-worthy tell-all published by its protagonist, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda). “Well, he never gonna be President now,” sings Thomas Jefferson (Tony winner Daveed Diggs), a conceit that seems particularly quaint and hilarious when you consider who was elected to that office the year “Hamilton” won 11 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize.
In fact, the timing of this release continues to put the musical in conversation with current events, specifically the recent spate of stories of people of color being delegitimized in, or completely left out of, boardrooms, writers’ rooms and other places where decisions were made. When Aaron Burr (Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr.) sings about wanting to be in the “room where it happens,” the lyrics are accompanied by the deliberately loaded image of a Black man singing them. “Hamilton”’s casting of mostly Black, Latinx and Asian performers to portray real-life people we knew were White (and, lest we forget, slaveowners) is questionable only if one doesn’t consider that a major theme of Miranda’s book is not only who gets to tell this American story, but also that the subjects themselves don’t really have any control over the storyteller. With the past few weeks filled with White voiceover artists voluntarily stepping aside to let Black artists voice their Black characters, I’m sure this casting conceit will be litigated once again in the whataboutism court of public opinion.
But I digress.
Since the “Hamilton” soundtrack has been on the charts since its release, a lot of viewers will finally have a visual context for the lyrics they know by heart. Starting with the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” Miranda crams an ungodly amount of exposition and history into his lyrics, often using rap as a means to his end. Odom’s Burr, the self-proclaimed “damn fool that shot” Hamilton and the cast detail the early years of our hero, tracing him from the Caribbean to New York City. It’s our first look at Paul Tazewell’s costume design and Howell Binkley’s lighting, both of which will be showcased by cinematographer Declan Quinn and Kail’s superb framing. We’re also introduced to the main actors’ voices, each distinct and wonderful in their own right. This opening, and other detail-filled songs, are to millennials what “Schoolhouse Rock” was to my generation, though ABC would have found this too dangerous to spring on us kids.