Halftime Leisure

Hamilton’s America Explores the Creation of a Cultural Phenomenon

November 1, 2016


PBS

Hamilton’s America set out to tell “the story behind the revolutionary musical,” and it does exactly that. The documentary provides history about Alexander Hamilton, shows the process of the creation of the musical, and exhibits the resoundingly enthusiastic public response. The documentary centers on the strikingly personable on the accomplished Lin-Manuel Miranda and features footage from the show and interviews with giants of both the hip hop and musical world, including rappers Nas and Jay-Z, as well as composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods).However, these interviews take a back seat to the real star, the musical.  Hamilton’s America is impressive because it allows Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work to speak for itself.

With so much content to cover, the pace feels quick. Interview clips rather than long sequences maintain interest and the fast pace, and they avoid the possibility of drawing excess attention to any one opinion or aspect of Hamilton, instead providing an all-inclusive, well-balanced overview. Interviewees include President Obama, President Bush, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and historians who contribute background information about Alexander Hamilton. The politicians shared that their love of the musical stems mainly from the obsession it has generated among America’s youth and across party lines. These insights are supplemented with visits to historical locations and cast interactions with historical artifacts. The historical sections are interesting, and add context to the subject matter.

In between interview spots with different people are clips from and pertaining to the show and it’s history. Although these too are kept short, they should be sufficient for the Hamilton lover who is looking for something to tide themselves over until the possibility of actually seeing the real show becomes more realistic. Footage of the cast visiting historical spots related to Hamilton are placed steadily throughout the documentary, and they spark a dive into the subject of the morality of some historical figures in the musical, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Actors Daveed Diggs (Jefferson) and Christopher Jackson (Washington) share their feelings towards getting into the minds of characters and the way that they approach the process of capturing their energies every night on stage. Their insights are interesting and touching, since it’s clear that they respect the men that they portray, yet struggle to relate directly to them on all fronts.

The best part of the documentary is the access into the writing process that it grants to the viewer. The viewer is shown to something consumers of art are seldom shown: the drawing board where the work begins. Cameras follow Miranda into his home and into his writing and composition sessions, which feel familiar, since they included a great deal of editing and rewriting. The value of these sequences is that they make the Hamilton phenomenon more attractive by showing that it came about the way most things do: with hard work. Hamilton lovers will recognize the lyrics that made it in and hear traces of lyrics in the since-nixed rough drafts.

Successful documentaries entertain and tell stories that people want to hear. Hamilton’s America does not throw away its shot at success. It tells the story of Hamilton, and it allows the work to speak for itself. The cinematic elements of the documentary are subtle and bring the attention to all that Hamilton is, and all that has come from it. Most will still have to patiently wait for a chance to see Hamilton live, but this documentary is a fantastic appetizer to the show itself.


Brynne Long
Brynne loves all things history. Movies are cool, too. She graduated from the college in 2019.


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