The reason I think it’s near the best is that it combines revolutionary sensibility with bombastic pop accessibility, which after all is what revolution should be about—accessibility. And the T-Rex song “Children of the Revolution” is an essential self-identifying characteristic of the movie’s heroes. That the number of heroes in the film is in the hundreds only makes it more revolutionary. It also makes use of what film does so beautifully that other arts can’t imitate: montage, as well as the combination of music with narrative and visual imagery. Indeed, no film that does not make meaning with music can fully live up to the emotional possibilities of film.
But let’s talk about freedom, truth, beauty and love. Kudos to writers Baz Luhrman (also the director, as I’m sure you know if you bothered to read this far about such a tastelessly idealistic movie) and Craig Pearce for refusing to cower to cynical, hip valuations of any such slogans as ‘not complex’ enough. Please—as I argued in another blog, what passes for complexity in Hollywood—No Country for Old Men—is but politically ignorant late capitalist obsession with individual characters. Kudos not just for those four words, but for their interrelation. The film is painstakingly constructed to reveal (and embody the truth that) each of those ideals is impoverished without the other. Beauty is impoverished without truth (Satine’s sexuality is fake and unsexy until the truth of the poet’s words get through to her). One needs Love to maintain the spirit to fight for Truth. Love without Freedom is bourgeois (see Forrest Gump and its writing off of all freedom fighters as mere cultural ‘phases’ which our dumb hero is somehow above and beyond with his apolitical love). Lastly, Freedom without Love easily descends into dogma and tyranny (see Fox News talking about ‘freedom’ in America).
The most bizarre criticism I hear about the film is that its vision of love and its love scenes are too escapist or unreal. Huh? That’s how being in love looks. Also, it’s a love story between a bohemian revolutionary and a prostitute, which celebrates drug use, doggedly refuses to separate romantic sentiment from civic consciousness, and ends with death. The use of contemporary popular songs is seen by some to be creatively lazy, but to me it’s a stroke of genius, which does the opposite of simply riding on other people’s genius—Luhrman makes all of those songs more powerful than they are in their contemporary context, trapped in the specific spaces allotted to them by capitalist production processes. It is good for us to hear “Heroes” mapped onto turn-of-the-century Bohemian values, with Toulouse-Lautrec in mind, and to hear McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” lifted up where it belongs beyond silly Paul McCartney and into the more John Lennon landscape of revolutionary turn-of-the-century Paris. And sure enough, 100 years later, the world still hasn’t got enough of silly love songs.
Why? Because they’re not so silly in the right context. We may like the songs “Children of the Revolution” (the revolutionary song) and “Come What May”(the love song), but they appear in the movie as but drafts, moments of dawning consciousness that are not fully realized until they are wed in the grand finale, in which both songs are sung together. Thus, “I will love you, come what may” is spliced with “stand our ground, for freedom, truth, beauty and love”, “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”, and the poet’s song as well (“my gift is my song”). I can’t underscore this moment enough—it is the most brilliant moment in the film and one of the most brilliant moments in film history. By themselves each of those songs is inspiring and moving. Combined together, sung both as part of a production and part of the real lives in that production, they are revolutionary.
The film looks superficially like a tragedy, given that the heroine dies, but it is filmed untragically. First, when she learns of her impending death, the pimp/owner of the Moulin Rouge leads the ensemble of the theater in “The Show Must Go On.” Luhrman takes care to film everyone involved in the production, from the stars to the underlings and the old men working the rafters. We start to realize that there is something bigger than the little loving twosome going on here. When Satine dies, the camera pans up (again capturing some of the workers normally uncaptured in such love stories) and over the curtain, where the audience is applauding—they are applauding because Satine DID succeed—although her performance was one night only, and although her life is over, she gave the performance of the century, which transcended acting, broke down the third wall, and became real. She sang the song written for a fictional situation sincerely, truly, heartrendingly, in a real situation. This is the purpose of great art. This is how great people react to art. They do not separate the stage and the street. They bring the songs to the street, to the bedroom. That is what it means to be the children of the revolution. A far cry from the American habit of leaving the movie’s message in the theater. (Did you notice, Star Wars fans, that the heroes are “terrorists” and revolutionaries??? Live up to your cheering habits…) That is why the “Elephant Love Medley” ends with “we can be heroes”. That is why in the hands of Luhrman the can-can becomes a Nietzschean affirmation: yes we CAN CAN CAN!
Che Guevara maintained that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of true love. Equally so, the true lover is guided by revolutionary spirit. If love is not revolutionary, it is but affection, affirmation, comfort, stability, what Nietzsche calls “wretched contentment”. It is interesting that the villain maintains many of the notions of love, freedom, and truth that underpin late capitalism. Interesting because the audience ostensibly identifies not with the villain but the lovers. This is because we think of film, like the villain thinks of the production within the production of Moulin Rouge, as a form of spectacle that doesn’t hold true in real life. But everywhere the film reminds us that such a perspective is merely refusing to accept our revolutionary responsibility to write our own stories. As I argued above, this is why Christian walks off the stage in the middle of the final production. It is also why he walks back on when his lover demonstrates that she understands that their art is more powerful than reality itself.
So watch it again. Notice the progression of the songs, culminating in the pitch-perfect finale (perhaps the greatest finale in film history). Notice how you feel. Then take it to your bedroom. Once you’ve perfected it there, take it to the streets. THAT’S what this story is about. Come what may.