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Review: 'Hamilton' comes home in rousing filmed version of stage sensation

Lin-Manuel Miranda's revolutionary stage musical doesn't throw away its shot in energetic Disney+ production

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

The smash hit musical and one of the most acclaimed Broadway productions of all-time comes home with "Hamilton," an extraordinary document of the hip-hop musical about the "bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman" who became one of America's Founding Fathers.

It's not quite like being there, but it's as close to the real thing as anyone will ever get again, with principal cast members Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda all present, accounted for and captured in close-up. With so much of "Hamilton" circling around the idea of history and how one's story is told once they're no longer around to tell it, this version of "Hamilton" ensures Miranda's vision will live on and continue to narrate its own story for generations to come.

Anthony Ramos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan in "Hamilton."

The 2015 production is preserved here from three live shows from June 2016. By that point "Hamilton" was already a full-blown sensation, as you can hear from the rapturous crowd, who likely paid untold amounts to be in the audience. 

Aside from the thunderous rounds of applause, there are moments that help contextualize the societal framework within which we're seeing the show; the line "immigrants — we get the job done" (from "Yorktown") gets a huge ovation, a reminder the show was filmed in an election year where immigration had become a contentious, hot button topic. (The line still gets big cheers in live productions of "Hamilton," and is treated like a Kramer entrance from midway through "Seinfeld's" run.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo in "Hamilton."

As you no doubt know by now, Miranda plays Alexander Hamilton, and the show frames his life and place in American history as a transplant from the Caribbean who comes to New York, becomes an associate of George Washington (Christopher Jackson) who helps author the Federalist papers and dies by the gun of Aaron Burr (Odom Jr.). Miranda uses hip-hop as an incredibly compelling storytelling device, modernizing history in a smart, literate way, paying homage to artists ranging from Grandmaster Flash and Brand Nubian to the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, and at one point staging a cabinet meeting as an "8 Mile"-style rap battle. 

The filmed production, directed by Thomas Kail (who also directed the stage show), opens with a reminder (from Jonathan Groff's cheeky King George) to silence your cellphone, effectively placing the viewing audience at home inside the Richard Rodgers Theatre. From there it's off to the races, and the opening title song grips the viewer and sets the course for the wild journey ahead. 

It's a dense viewing experience, a full two hours and 40 minutes (there's a one minute intermission embedded into the film), and those not familiar with the music or the story might find their head spinning while attempting to keep characters and affiliations straight. The advantage of watching at home is it can be paused and used as a learning tool, where the live show presents such a flurry of information at such a fast pace it's tough to take all in at once. 

The show is the show; Kail filmed a handful of establishing shots without an audience present but they're worked seamlessly into the production, and there aren't any interludes or outside elements to distract from or take away from Miranda's original stage vision. But rather than viewing from a fixed position, Kail's six cameras allow for a vantage point impossible to experience in the live show, and he darts around the stage and films actors in tight shots and wide frames that brings a fresh eye to to the presentation. It's "Hamilton" through a new lens. 

There is a short introduction from Miranda and Kail, helping place the show within our immediate political moment, and "Hamilton" speaks proudly to diversity in storytelling, with Black and brown performers taking on white roles and expanding the notion of history and how it's told. "Hamilton" remains an explosive show, an optimistic revision of history bursting with creative light, and that light can help illuminate the path through our current darkness. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Hamilton'

GRADE: A-

Rated PG-13: for language and some suggestive material

Running time: 162 minutes

Starts Friday on Disney+