Two of my favorite “movie” experiences last year were filmed versions of Broadway productions, released on streaming platforms.
Should Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton count as a movie? Would it count if it had been released in theaters, as was the plan pre-pandemic? What about David Byrne’s American Utopia, filmed by no less a screen titan than Spike Lee, but inherently a faithful depiction of his stage show?
For the purposes of the all-important year-end top ten list, I have chosen to exclude both of these films. I saw American Utopia on plenty of critics lists, but I don’t see how it’s any different than Hamilton, except that it was nowhere near as popular onstage.
The bottom line for me is these are great movies because they were great Broadway shows. It isn’t the camera placement or editing, it’s the material as performed on stage — all of that energy and emotion that made these memorable theatrical experiences.
This decision to exclude Hamilton and American Utopia from consideration for my Top Ten opens a can of worms. By this logic, would Johnathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense — considered by many the greatest concert film ever made — not qualify either? Is there a difference between a music concert and a Broadway show?
I’d argue — weakly, I admit — that there is. A Broadway show is meticulously planned, with every performer’s movements choreographed through months of rehearsals. The direction happens on stage.
A concert is looser, giving the movie director more freedom to compile a collection of moving images into a film. I see Jonathan Demme’s hand in Stop Making Sense far more than Spike Lee’s in American Utopia — and Spike Lee is not somebody whose stamp is usually hard to miss.
Regardless of the semantic argument over how to classify these productions, I’m thrilled to have watched both of them this year. Hamilton was a stirring reminder of the original cast performance I was lucky enough to see on Broadway in 2016. And American Utopia showcases one of our greatest musical icons in a warm and uplifting celebration of humanity.