Luis A. Miranda Jr. never meant to step into the spotlight. Working for heavyweights like Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Ed Koch during his four decades in politics, then guiding the career of his son Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning creator of “Hamilton,” the elder Miranda preferred a life behind the scenes.
That all changed in 2016 when he agreed to let filmmaker John James trail him with a camera on the eve of one of the most eventful years of his life.
In the resulting documentary, “Siempre, Luis,” after suffering a heart attack that temporarily slows him down, the Puerto Rico-born consultant responds by helping his adopted teenage son apply to college. He manages one last election campaign. He raises money for hurricane relief for a Puerto Rico devastated by disaster and neglect.
Taking on the task of bringing “Hamilton” to the island where his family’s roots run deep, he joins Lin-Manuel at the announcement of a high-profile staging of the show at the University of Puerto Rico. There, they run into unexpected frictions with student protesters over their support of a controversial 2016 debt relief law and, later, get caught in a battle between the school and an employees union that forces a controversial last-minute venue change.
Doctors tell him to get more rest but he barely even sleeps, instead answering emails into the wee hours of the night. Who has the time?
“As I always say, at some point, I am going to die,” Miranda, 65, said cheerfully ahead of his trip to the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary premiered Saturday. “And when you die, you’re gone for eternity. I’ll have plenty of time to rest.”
Even as a child growing up in the small town of Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, which he left at the age of 18 for New York City, Luis Miranda was fueled by a relentless drive. As a youngster he’d fallen in love with the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and its effervescent heroine, played by Debbie Reynolds, and it imprinted on his personality, says Lin-Manuel.
That’s not to say Luis Miranda doesn’t have his ways of unwinding in a time when the political climate still has him ready to fight one battle after the next.
“I have to finish my days with Stephen Colbert just [crapping] on Trump, because that gives me joy,” said Miranda, who is the founding partner of political consulting and lobbying firm MirRam Group. “That is my treat at the end of the day.”
When you die, you’re gone for eternity. I’ll have plenty of time to rest.
Miranda launched his career in U.S. politics and public service in the 1980s as a special advisor for Hispanic affairs to then-New York Mayor Ed Koch. While serving on the board of the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, Rudy Giuliani appointed him chairman, a move Miranda unabashedly describes as “the political mistake of my career.”
“Then he was just difficult and mean,” said Miranda with a laugh. “Now he’s just crazy.”
He founded the nonprofit Hispanic Federation and worked on successful Senate campaigns for Sens. Clinton, Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Fernando Ferrer’s runs for NYC mayor. In “Siempre, Luis,” he celebrates one final victory as a campaign manager, running Letitia James’ historic bid to become the first African American and first female attorney general of New York.
Throughout the film he’s constantly on the go for work, family and his many projects, even as his wife, Luz Towns-Miranda, raises an eyebrow. But his attention always returns to Puerto Rico, a connection passed down from both parents to Lin-Manuel, who would spend childhood summers there, immersed in the culture and his family’s history.
The elder Miranda’s story reflects the experiences of many migrants with strong ties to the island, and it resonated with filmmaker James, who first met his subject when they worked together in the same office more than a decade ago.
“My mother’s family was from Puerto Rico, and the drama of Puerto Ricans leaving and returning to the island was something I felt acutely as a child,” said the director via email. What he didn’t expect to capture during filming was what happened after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, causing $90 billion in damage, killing thousands and creating a humanitarian crisis for 3.4 million citizens.
The Mirandas jumped into action with efforts to help the island rebuild. “It was new territory, and I wanted to capture the spirit of guts and resoluteness that made Luis not just a survivor all those years but someone who thrived, with the hope that a similar picture of the island might come through as well,” said James.
Luis and Lin-Manuel Miranda brought resources and global media attention to the island. But they had also supported the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA law, a federal financial oversight measure that led to severe austerity cuts before Maria hit.
So when their quest to bring “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico was greeted with both enthusiasm and criticism, it was just as important for James to show how they handled the heat.
The film depicts a moment in 2017 when student protesters with signs in Spanish reading “Our lives are not your theater” storm the stage where Lin-Manuel is announcing plans to bring “Hamilton” to the University of Puerto Rico. Watching from the sidelines at the alma mater where he participated in protests as a student, Luis indicates that the demonstrators should be allowed to speak.
“I believe that all voices need to be heard,” he said. “As clichéd as it sounds, that’s the beauty of democracy. And I understood at that moment that 50 years ago, that could have been me, presenting a dissenting voice to something that felt good.”
The protests were “part of the conversation,” says Lin-Manuel, who subsequently backed away from his initial support of the law. “And I’m glad it’s in the movie, because it will become part of the conversation.”
It was a critical moment to include in the film, said James. “We chose to follow Luis not just because he was such an inspiring and remarkable migrant but, in truth, because it was always intriguing watching him bite off more than he could chew.”
A year later, while preparing to open the show at the historic Teatro de la Universidad de Puerto Rico and after spending $1 million to repair the hurricane-damaged building, Miranda was informed that the battle between the school and union members could escalate into protests outside of “Hamilton.”
“All of this could be in vain,” Luis muses in the film, looking around at the massive efforts already underway. One month before opening at the university, the Mirandas moved the production to the Centro de Bellas Artes cultural center in neighboring Santurce citing security issues, leaving the campus community reeling.
The unsinkable Luis Miranda can take the slings and arrows. His son too has learned to navigate them as fame brings not only more chances to exercise his voice but scrutiny of the choices he makes in pursuit of change.
“It is easier to be the star of ‘Hamilton’ in pen and onstage,” said Luis Miranda. “Everybody adores you and believes it’s an incredible work of art. It is different to take a political position, because as an artist, artists live in context. And I’m very glad my son understands that in his life.”
He pondered his responsibility, as someone who left Puerto Rico decades ago, to be a part of helping it rebuild and thrive today.
“What’s the role that we play, the 5 million that like me had a life in Puerto Rico and came somewhere else?” he said. “How do we, 5 million with very different degrees of engagement to the island, be part of that story ... in a good way?”
In November, Lin-Manuel announced plans to bring his first Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” back to San Juan in 2020, a month before the Warner Bros. film adaptation of the same name, directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” helmer Jon M. Chu, hits theaters.
“I think anyone who has seen ‘Hamilton’ and wondered how close that is to a portrait of me will see this movie and go, ‘Oh, I see: It’s his dad,’ ” said Lin-Manuel, who is currently in preproduction on his directorial debut for Netflix, the Jonathan Larson musical “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” “For better or worse, I have my father’s work ethic in regards to my own art, and also an impatience to get things done.”
Gearing up for his big Sundance premiere, where Lin-Manuel also appears in the documentaries “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” and “Mucho Mucho Amor,” Luis was ready for his film debut and all the attention it may bring to his life, his passions, his family and his work.
“At the end, I didn’t have any qualms about what it presents,” he said, “because at the end of the day, that’s who I am.”