Entertainment

Documentary tells the fascinating backstory of ‘Hamilton’ — and even Obama chimes in

Lin-Manuel Miranda backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York, NY, in a scene from “Hamilton's America”
Lin-Manuel Miranda backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York, NY, in a scene from “Hamilton's America” Courtesy RadicalMedia

You're sick of the presidential race and the rancorous, endless political debate, bleary and disgusted but unable to tear yourself away from the stream of righteous indignation on your Facebook feed. Which makes this the perfect time to watch a documentary on a theater piece about one of the most divisive and decisive political eras in our nation's history.

That, of course, would be "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda's culture-conquering hit that's used two popular mediums, hip-hop and Broadway musicals, to tell a startlingly hummable history of the little known founding father of the U.S. economic system - and make "Just like my country/I'm young, scrappy and hungry" into a new (or renewed) American motto.

Everyone from "Hamilton" obsessives (who can recite the songs chapter and verse - you know who you are) to those who've never fantasized about spending a fortune on the almost unattainable tickets to the Broadway hit will find plenty to love in "Hamilton's America," the PBS Great Performances documentary airing Friday, which kicks off the PBS Arts Fall Festival.

The film, created by RadicalMedia, a multi-award winning producer of cultural documentaries (including "What Happened, Miss Simone?" and "Keith Richards: Under the Influence"), goes back several years to when Miranda started creating "Hamilton," shooting the overwhelmed writer in his under-construction apartment, awaiting his first child. "My life is under construction," he says. (Credit RadicalMedia for having the prescience to start filming long before anyone thought an unwritten musical on an obscure historical figure would be a massive success.)

Miranda picked up Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton for some light vacation reading in 2008, and was unexpectedly inspired. "This is Tupac, this is Biggie... this is my next show," Miranda proclaims. Chernow's understandable reaction is "Really?" President Obama, one of many stellar interviewees, echoes that skepticism as he tells an awestruck Miranda his response after inviting the composer to perform at the White House in 2009. "When you told us “I'm gonna do a rap about Alexander Hamilton,” we said "well, good luck with that"."

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But artists see things the rest of us don't, and geniuses (Miranda won a MacArthur "Genius" award, so it's a legit title) transform the way the rest of us see things. "Hamilton's America" tells many stories: about the man at the center of the musical, American history, the show's creation, how we understand history and what it means to be American, about flawed but brilliant politicians and the transformative nature of writing. Much of what we learn in the film fills out the back story of the musical; the startling details of Hamilton's life, for instance, or why the Federalist Papers were important or how dueling worked.

But the story unique to the documentary is how the artists, from Miranda to his actors and collaborators, are able to re-imagine history and bring it alive.

When you told us “I'm gonna do a rap about Alexander Hamilton,” we said "well, good luck with that."

President Obama to Lin-Manuel Miranda

Oskar Eustis, the director of New York's Public Theater, where "Hamilton" was developed and staged before it went on to Broadway, even makes a convincing case that Miranda is the equal of Shakespeare as a writer and historical dramatist.

The 90 minute film weaves together the story of the show's creation and its odyssey to success, with commentary on history, hip-hop and politics. We get to know Miranda, who comes across as engagingly passionate and genuinely humble. There's an impressively diverse line-up of interviewees, including legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and President George W. Bush, conservative Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and progressive heroine Senator Elizabeth Warren. This has got to be the only film that includes two (living) Treasury Secretaries, Timothy Geithner and Hank Paulson, and two hip-hop legends, Nas and Questlove of The Roots.

"In hip-hop no one can tell you you're wrong, unless the rhymes are wack," Nas tells a grinning Miranda. No wonder he knew he could tell this story.

But even more fascinating - at least to anyone who's interested in how artists and theater work - are the interviews with "Hamilton" 's actors. Much has been written about how the show's racially diverse casting expanded our sense of who can claim American history, by having brilliant black actors play the likes of Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and George Washington (Christopher Jackson.) But hearing these actors talk about the understanding and dimension they bring to what have become cardboard historical heroes, is fantastically moving.

Part of what they do is reconcile themselves to these figures' flaws. One of the film's devices is to take the actors to historical sites: we get Miranda composing in Aaron Burr's bedroom (yes "the room where it happens"), Jackson visiting Washington's home. "Our understanding of history goes awry when we only tell one part of the story," says Jackson, wrestling with - and accepting - the fact of a slave-owning founding father. Political leaders, he helps us understand, don't have to be perfect to change the world.

The film's end shows us Miranda at the feet of a statue of Hamilton in New York's Central Park. "I feel like Hamilton reached out and chose me" he says, and we hear the strains from the show's central song "who lives, who dies, who tells your story." By telling Hamilton's story, Miranda opened the way for the rest of us to re-imagine and re-claim America, making the case for bravery and optimism and self-realization against bitterness and terrible odds. Which is a wonderful gift in this particular election year.

"Hamilton's America" airs at 9 p.m. on WPBT-Ch. 2, and streams on pbs.org.

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