Early on in Hamilton’s America, the new PBS Great Performances documentary about the Broadway musical, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda sits down at the historical Hamilton’s desk. Fiddling with a quill pen, he muses, "This just makes me feel like I have to go home and write."
Watching Hamilton’s America makes me feel like I have to go home and blast my cast album of the musical. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
Hamilton’s America is great as an advertisement for Hamilton that reminds you of how electric the show can be. But as a documentary that stands on its own, and explores what’s meaningful and compelling about both the musical and Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacy, it’s just okay.
The documentary’s historical segments have no point of view
Much of Hamilton’s America is given over to talking-head summaries of Hamilton’s life, interspersed with illustrative clips from the staged show. Ron Chernow, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Hamilton biography on which the musical is based, explains that Hamilton got his debt plan passed in a backroom deal with Jefferson and Madison. Then there’s a clip of Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr singing about the backroom deal in "The Room Where It Happens." If you’ve listened to the cast album and checked YouTube for clips of the show, there is little here that’s new.
And the documentary aggressively avoids editorializing on the show's history. Part of its thesis is that Hamilton is for everyone, regardless of their political persuasion. To that end, it delights in cutting from former President George W. Bush confirming that political figures do, in fact, make backroom deals to progressive darling Elizabeth Warren praising Hamilton the self-made man.
The most controversial thing Hamilton’s America dares to note is that most of the Founding Fathers kept slaves. Or, as it’s put by Daveed Diggs (who originated the dual roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in the musical), Jefferson wrote "this incredible document, and several incredible documents, with things that we all believe in, and he sucks."
The musical’s cast and creative team members, speaking on this issue, are careful and nuanced: Christopher Jackson (George Washington in the musical) looks almost haunted as he walks through the slave quarters of Mount Vernon and talks about how hard it was to incorporate Washington the slave owner into his portrayal of Washington the father of his country.
But such moments are rare. For the most part, to keep from alienating any sector of its audience, Hamilton’s America does what Hamilton the musical avoids with all its might: It keeps its history bland. It has no compelling point of view.
There are great behind-the-scenes moments here, but not enough of them
The documentary does have a compelling point of view when it comes to the creation of the musical, though, and that’s where things get interesting. It shows us Miranda, sitting in Aaron Burr’s actual bedroom, composing Burr’s verse for "My Shot." Hunched over his laptop, he mutters a version that won’t make it to the show — "Shooting off at the mouth, shooting from the hip, shooting the shit" — before he gets stuck and trails off into, "Shooting something, shooty shooty shooty shooty shot." Then it cuts to Odom onstage, rapping the final version: "You got to be carefully taught, if you talk, you’re gonna get shot."
But there’s surprisingly little footage of the musical’s actual development. Most of the behind-the-scenes footage comes from the days after the show opened off Broadway, as it was exploding into the pop cultural consciousness. There’s Miranda and the cast visiting the White House; there’s Jimmy Fallon talking about Hamilton on his show; there are the crowds standing outside the Public Theater for the ticket lottery. This is all material that’s been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere, and it’s a lot less interesting than the work that went into creating the show before anyone had heard of it.
What’s all the more disappointing about that choice is that there is a wealth of material to work with when it comes to the behind-the-scenes process. There are six years to cover between Miranda writing the opening number of the show and Hamilton's arrival on Broadway, and a whole lengthy, probably fascinating development process went on in that time. And it’s not as though the documentary's director, Alex Horwitz, didn’t have access. He was Miranda’s former roommate, and he started following Miranda as he was just beginning to put Hamilton together. So why don’t we get to see any of that work?
Hamilton went through workshops! It had different costumes and a cheaper version of its set. It went through a whole roster of names before it landed on the cast that took it to Broadway. There’s bootleg audio footage lurking on the internet of Anika Noni Rose — Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog — doing an early version of "Satisfied" before Renée Elise Goldsberry took over the role of Angelica; seeing even a minute of that would have been miles more interesting than what we actually get, which is a newsreel montage of all the magazine covers on which the Hamilton Broadway cast has appeared.
There’s little new footage of the musical. It’s still the best part of the documentary.
But ultimately, the big selling point of this documentary is not really the history or the creative process or the behind-the-scenes stuff; it’s that it’s supposed to feature extensive footage of Hamilton’s original Broadway cast performing the show.
PBS filmed a performance of Hamilton before members of the original cast, Miranda included, started departing the show — and the only place you can see any of that footage for right now is in Hamilton’s America. The rest of it is going into a vault, presumably until the show’s producers decide that releasing it won’t mean cutting into the show’s sky-high ticket sales.
But oddly, that exclusive footage seems to be in short supply in Hamilton’s America. Most of what’s shown here are the publicity excerpts that went on YouTube right as Hamilton went to Broadway; some of it, judging by the costumes, is actually footage of its off-Broadway run at the Public Theater.
What new footage we get is well-shot — Hamilton’s America has learned from the mistakes of 60 Minutes, which filmed excerpts of the show in awkwardly looming, sweat-drenched close-ups for its Hamilton special a year ago. Here, the camera keeps its distance in order to highlight the staging and the choreography, and so that the cast’s big theatrical emoting has room to do its work.
Despite the fact that little of it is new, the footage of the show itself is easily the most electrifying part of Hamilton’s America. It’s thrilling to watch the Schuyler sisters twirling off their rotating platform to sing, "Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now." It’s thrilling to watch Burr tossing his frilly cuffs as he sings about the room where it happens. It’s thrilling to watch Hamilton clutch at Eliza’s hand as he sings, "My love, take your time." These moments are so powerful that the rest of the documentary turns into incidental white noise around them.
If the mission of Hamilton’s America is to tell fans something they didn’t already know about the development of Hamilton, or about what it means to American culture, it fails. But if its mission is to remind those fans that they really love watching Hamilton, and should look into getting tickets to see the new cast, it does an excellent job. It is, in other words, a terrific advertisement for the musical.