Review: 'Hamilton's America' is the history lesson you need to watch pre-'Hamilton'

Documentaries are boring. Cameras pan over black-and-white photos, actors do vague and cheesy re-enactments in period costume and a narrator speaks at a glacial pace about something we learned about in grade school social studies.

But if there's anything "Hamilton" has done, it's upend people's expectations, and it's no different in "Hamilton's America," a documentary airing 9 p.m. Friday on PBS about the musical.

Instead of photos, we have clips from Broadway afterparties. Sure, the actors are in period costume, but there's nothing vague, cheesy or glacial about the rhymes being spit across the stage, all about a guy we last heard about in sixth grade.

What happens?
"Hamilton's America" is part making-of/behind-the-scenes of "Hamilton," part history lesson. Various historians chime in on the historical stuff, but it's all threaded together by "Hamilton" creator/all-around-amazing person Lin-Manuel Miranda as he walks us through the process of researching Hamilton and putting together a musical on his life.

There's footage of him from as early as 2008, fresh off the success of his Tony-winning play "In the Heights" and already chewing over lyrics for "Hamilton." Of course, there's the first performance of "Hamilton" material in 2009 at the White House, but there's also more personal clips of Miranda writing in his apartment 2014, a year before the show debuted, and freestyle rapping with the cast in the dressing room after a show.

What's good?
Even when the documentary delves into the historical events of the American Revolution, it doesn't lose track of Miranda as the central figure of the show. A segment exploring Hamilton's life includes Miranda visiting Hamilton's actual house and sitting at his desk, for example. 

The editors weren't stingy with showing clips from the Broadway production, either. Entire numbers aren't shown, but good chunks of them are.

What's bad?
The second half of the documentary falters slightly in its focus as it tries to push the narrative of Hamilton's relevancy in the U.S.' financial system today. They linger too long on this and can't weave many clips of the musical into this thread, unlike the first half, which did so perfectly.

Also, the process of getting the show to the stage is glossed over to the point of hardly being addressed. Miranda is writing, then all of a sudden they're celebrating opening night Off Broadway; minutes later, they're moving to Broadway. Many go on and on about how wonderful the show is, but we've heard all that before. It would have been nice to show the meteoric success of the show through the eyes of Miranda, the cast or even the producers.

Final verdict
There's more history here than expected, but it'll help make sense of all the references in the lyrics that you would miss otherwise. As Questlove of the Roots says in the doc, "There's double and triple meanings, and layers upon layers. I've had to see 'Hamilton' eight or nine times to get references that I didn't get the first eight times." But nobody's got the time (or money) for that. However, PBS is free and if you don't have tickets until February, "Hamilton's America" will help you get your fix until then.

3 stars
NR

 

 

@elisekdelo  |  ekdelossantos@redeyechicago.com

 

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