‘Siempre, Luis’ Review: Portrait of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Dad Aims to Tell His Story, But Can’t Resist the Stage Lights

The celebrated composer's father gets a showcase of his own political achievements, but John James' oddly structured doc tries to please the 'Hamilton' crowd too.

'Siempre, Luis' Review: A Divided Doc on Luis and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Courtesy of HBO Documentary

You need only read the most potted of biographies to know that Luis Miranda is an accomplished man: a plucky, never-say-die Puerto Rican immigrant who arrived in New York as a teen and rose to become a major political consultant, acting as a special advisor to New York mayor Ed Koch, steering campaigns for the likes of Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, founding the Hispanic Federation and strategic consulting firm the MirRam Group, as well as heading up multiple charity initiatives to raise funds for his disaster-struck homeland. A devoted, misty-eyed documentary portrait of the 66-year-old, “Siempre, Luis” covers all this in brief, but is also aware that most regard its subject’s most notable accomplishment as a less direct one: namely, fathering a certain actor-composer-playwright named Lin-Manuel, and thus ensuring that outsize Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton” would eventually enter the world.

Across 94 minutes, “Siempre, Luis” attempts to accommodate both perceptions, even as the one slightly undermines the other. We get a rundown of Luis’ formidable political career, independent of his celebrity family status, as if to educate viewers who recognize him only as an adjunct to an icon. “It’s time to tell his story,” runs the film’s HBO marketing tagline, and at least a portion of John James’ proficiently assembled film does just that. But it’s also a documentary that knows on which side its bread is buttered, and that its primary audience is a cult of Hamilfans hungry for any supplementary material to their favorite musical. As such, “Siempre, Luis” winds up sidelining the bulk of Luis’ life to focus disproportionately on a recent achievement: his part, alongside that of his son, in bringing “Hamilton” to a Puerto Rican audience. The perky but lopsided result isn’t particularly revelatory on either front, and so relentlessly glowing that it’s hard not to feel some of Luis’ political expertise at play.

The chipper mood of proceedings is set by a soundtrack of chattering Latin music from the outset, underscoring even James’ somber choice of starting point: Luis’ 2017 heart attack, portrayed as the culmination of a tireless work ethic over five decades. “He’s just a relentless motherf—er,” Lin-Manuel pops up to explain with a grin, before James rewinds the clock to recap the busy life events that have led to this bodily objection. Luis’ childhood is glossed over; his life, it seems, really began as a participant in heated student protests at the University of Puerto Rico in 1970. A firebrand with his eyes on a bigger prize than the island could offer, he enrolled in an NYU program for Puerto Rican students, leaving behind the wife he’d married at just 18 — one of many personal details that get short shrift in a primarily achievement-oriented narrative.

In short order, we cover Luis’ courtship of, and swift marriage to, his second wife Luz, the birth of Lin-Manuel, and a series of career milestones that pile up in breathless succession. We’re briefed on his role in Koch’s office as a manager of Hispanic affairs, and his successful management of Schumer’s underdog campaign for Senate in 1998, which worked by targeting the neglected Latino vote in particular. Later assignments for the likes of Clinton would prove how, according one talking head, he “mainstreamed Latino politics” to become a valued consultant on less demographically specific matters. If there were any lulls or setbacks in his political trajectory, they haven’t made it into the edit.

As if aware that this cinematic curriculum vitae is none too lively, “Siempre, Luis” abruptly switches tack, fast-forwarding to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017, and covering Luis’ and the Hispanic Federation’s involvement in Lin-Manuel’s all-star charity single “Almost Like Praying.” Awkwardly shoehorned as this passage is, it provides the cue for the film to shift the spotlight to its subject’s dazzling son. And so Lin-Manuel’s career origins get their own rosy precis, from a post-college crossroads between teaching and theater, to the scrappy success and eventual Tony-night glory of “In the Heights,” and beyond. Archival footage shows Lin-Manuel performing a dynamic first taste of “Hamilton” for Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House: It has little to do with the rest of the film, but fans will shiver in delight.

Luis’ practical and spiritual support of his son’s career is stressed throughout: We’re somewhat tenuously told how his personal and professional fortitude was an inspiration for the figure of Alexander Hamilton as interpreted on stage. But as we segue into the complications and obstacles of bringing “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico — including a ruined theater and political student protests, ironically echoing the rebellious spirit of Luis’ formative years — the film can’t quite make us invest in the struggle or the triumph of the project, in large part because we can sense more complex slices of life, and perhaps this life in particular, going untold.

It doesn’t help that, whether by choice or necessity, there’s no rousing footage from “Hamilton” itself in the film: Somewhat surprisingly, the song that emerges as a leitmotif for Luis’ storied life here is not a Miranda composition, but an instrumental arrangement of sweeping “Greatest Showman” ballad “Never Enough.” If the implication is that the very full life of Luis Miranda — by every account a fine political strategist, a fine humanitarian, and a fine father — still hungers for the shine of more spotlights and stars, that’s hard to believe. But one does leave this documentary feeling he hasn’t been entirely illuminated.

‘Siempre, Luis’ Review: Portrait of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Dad Aims to Tell His Story, But Can’t Resist the Stage Lights

Reviewed online, London, Oct. 6, 2020. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 94 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films release of a York Square Pictures production. Producers: Katie Taper, John James, Carlos Garcia de Dios. Executive producer: Michael Stolper.
  • Crew: Director: John James. Writers: James, Raul Santos, Carlos Garcia de Dios, Luis Alvarez y Alvarez. Camera: Garcia de Dois. Editor: Alvarez y Alvarez. Music: Joe Wong.
  • With: Luis Miranda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Luz Towns-Miranda, Miguel A. Towns . (English, Spanish dialogue)