Published Jul 02, 2020It's both fun and a bit boring to compare Canada to America, but particularly ill-advised because that often brings with it a sense of unearned superiority on the northern side. But if you spend enough time in the United States, one notable difference emerges over and over again — these people absolutely love history, particularly their own version of their own history. They love pilgrim hats and gold-buttoned Coldplay jackets and funny pantaloons, and they also love knowing all kinds of trivia about these items. And they love it so much that they turned an impossibly corny hip-hopera about a highly fictionalized version of their founding fathers into an enormous and unstoppable media property for millions of people on all sides of the (dead centre of the) political spectrum. And while it's technically impressive, make no mistake — Hamilton is bad on both a moral and aesthetic level.
Hamilton the musical was famously a smash hit almost instantly, with its tickets becoming the hottest item on Broadway for years. The kind of gatekept hype a Broadway show provides created a snowball effect — we knew that Hamilton was supposed to be amazing, but we didn't know why. Then, when its soundtrack came out, we understood that it was a really, really annoying rap musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda — 1997's version of a cool uncle who is really just a series of animated GIFs come to life. And now we can all experience it in full thanks to Disney+.
Inevitably, there will be an actual Hamilton movie in the future, but until then we get a filmed edition of the show as performed by its original cast in 2016. This version — which is an unholy 160 minutes long — was originally intended for theatrical release next year, but Disney+ ponied up $75 million to drop it on streaming services so people could learn all of its hippity hoppin' edutainment from the comfort of their own homes.
To be fair, a filmed Broadway show is not necessarily a film, and perhaps director Thomas Kail didn't realize how high the stakes would be when he shot this in 2016, but that still doesn't excuse the artlessness of Hamilton. There's a sterility to the film that suggests there were no stylistic choices made whatsoever, instead pointing a few cameras at the stage and letting these guys spit their scholastic bars to their hearts' content. In fact, the high-definition cinematography only serves to highlight the wrong things, like the fact that we can see a part of the conductor in some shots but not enough to suggest it was intentional. Or the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda's mic is a tiny little brown stub on his widow's peak. It looks like a little mouse turd hidden in his hairline, and it will ruin your viewing experience as soon as you see it.
In an intro to the film, Miranda — still rocking his omnipresent cool substitute teacher goatee all these years later — explains that the premise of his story is about "how history remembers, and how that changes over time." He's right in the sense that the musical does whatever the hell it wants with history — not that you'll really learn anything from the show. You'd have to be one of those textbook-obsessed Americans to understand all of the Epic Rap Battles of History-calibre puns being spit atop stock hip-hop beats. After Miranda literally raps "My name is Alexander Hamilton" (points for showing enough restraint to not say "and I'm here to say") the plot gets muddled by a series of irritating stanzas.
A quick list of things that the music in Hamilton is reminiscent of: Those super symphonic Macklemore songs where he raps in a quiet whisper before getting really loud. An open mic rapper who's slamming poetry at the vegan restaurant you're lined up at to eat something healthy for once because you've got a splitting hangover. Riverdance if the dancers were well-versed in the five elements of hip-hop. The kind of music that people dream of when they complain that hip new rap music is too "ignorant." A social studies teacher with a keen interest in "turntablism." If Poochie the Dog hosted his own episode of Schoolhouse Rock. The hip-hop version of Christian rock, where any stylistic choices only exist to serve and propagate its glaring agenda.
And to be clear, Hamilton is certainly propaganda, with Hamilton himself (whose major contribution to America was everyone's absolute favourite thing — big banks) representing a Christ figure to his whimsical cohorts. What, specifically, they're trying to push isn't exactly clear, other than the idea that America rocks.
In an era where corporations and media conglomerates are hearing cries to defund the police and responding by deleting episodes of South Park from streaming services, one can't help but think about the questionable political erasure of Hamilton. America's founding fathers were, uh, not exactly saints, to say the least. In fact, depending on who you ask, they might've been the bad guys. But in Hamilton, the most talked-about "progressive" subversion was the decision to cast founding fathers like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and, yes, Alexander Hamilton by Black and brown actors.
It's a problem that plays right into a practice known as "Founders Chic," which sees writers idolize American forefathers to the point that they downplay their involvement in atrocities like slavery. As historian Lyra Monteiro told Slate, Hamilton is deeply entrenched in Founders Chic to the point of suggesting Hamilton was against slavery, despite the jury still being out in real life. Further, Monteiro added, "It's still white history. And no amount of casting people of colour disguises the fact that they're erasing people of colour from the actual narrative." To that end, there aren't enough Mobb Deep-lite beats or record scratches or goofy lines about eviscerating the status quo to hide the fact that Hamilton is blatant propaganda for an idealized and fictional version of America, and little else.
Sure, the rapping is very impressive on a purely technical level. All of these people have memorized a lot of lines, delivering them without missing a mark. But the lines are inherently bad, and the play lacks any sense of nuance, instead settling on a relentless barrage of dunks about some imaginary human triumphs that probably never happened the way they're presented. That said, we can take some comfort in knowing that something this socially irresponsible is also so aesthetically bad. In a way, it feels like everything is exactly as it should be. (Disney)