If you’re anything like me, you probably watched the recorded stage performance of Hamilton (dir. Thomas Kail, 2020, available on Disney+) as soon as it came out on July 3rd. I had obsessively listened to the soundtrack for the majority of 2016, I could perfectly rap my favorite song “Guns and Ships,” though I could never be as good as Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), I had seen the blurry bootleg version on YouTube, I had read tons of behind-the-scenes details from interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda. You could say that I am a huge fan (as of writing this on July 6th, I have now watched the film five times).
Yet, as I sat re-watching the film and wondering why I was so enamored with this musical, the reason suddenly hit me – it resembled another of my favorite movie musicals: Moulin Rouge (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2001, available on HBO Max).
Technically, Hamilton might not be considered a film since it is simply a recorded stage performance (in fact, it is unable to compete for any Academy Awards but might qualify for the Emmys). However, for the sake of arguing, let’s call it a film.
In trying to appeal to younger audiences, Moulin Rouge and Hamilton use the same technique of using modern music in period pieces. Moulin Rouge uses actual pop songs (for example: “Your Song” by Elton John) and only one original song, while Hamilton uses hip-hop and rap with original lyrics (the song “10 Duel Commandments” was, according to Miranda, inspired by the structure of The Notorious BIG’s 1997 song “10 Crack Commandments”). Hamilton takes place in the late 1700s; Moulin Rouge takes place in 1899 and 1900. However, with the use of their modern music, and their modern use of language throughout their scripts, the films feel like they could have been set in the present day.
Most importantly, their main characters seem to parallel each other. Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the film’s titular character, and Christian (Ewan McGregor), Moulin Rouge’s protagonist, share a lot of similarities. Both are young writers who moved to a city that is the center of a huge cultural movement – Alexander to New York City to get an education and to help in the American Revolution, Christian to Paris to be a part of the Bohemian movement in the Montmartre district. They have huge dreams and aspirations of changing the world through their writing and end up meeting people who help them to achieve those goals. To use a Hamilton song quote from “My Shot,” Christian and Alexander are “young, scrappy, and hungry.” Both men deal with shifts of power in their goals, with Alexander becoming the Secretary of the Treasury and later getting embroiled in a cheating scandal and Christian having to rewrite his musical in order to appease his financial backer the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). The men also deal with heartbreak and grief, specifically in regards to their romantic partners.
However, at the end of both films, there is a slight shift with characters and the narrative. Instead of paralleling Alexander Hamilton, Christian actually shows more of a similarity to Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo), while Alexander seems to take on the role of Satine (Nicole Kidman). The idea of who tells the story and who controls the narrative flips. Alexander and Satine die tragically, Alexander from a duel and Satine from tuberculosis, leaving behind their heartbroken partners. Both Christian and Eliza are then given the difficult task of telling their beloved’s stories. They build legacies for their partners and, in that process, legacies for themselves. Christian, in the film’s final song “Nature Boy (Reprise),” says that “their love will live forever,” making sure that Satine and their love story would be remembered. One of the main musings in Hamilton is the quote “You have no control – who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – throughout the film, there was more emphasis on the “who tells your story?” part. Alexander was focused on his legacy, on what he would leave behind. Eliza, who had earlier decided to take herself out of Alexander’s story after his cheating scandal, put herself back into the narrative and make sure that Alexander’s legacy would live on. Much like Christian, she writes their story of love, power, and revolution. By writing their stories and their history by keeping their partners alive in writing, both Christian and Eliza write and claim their own legacy.
The idea of “who owns the narrative” is incredibly important in storytelling and in history itself. Whoever writes and decides the narrative of a story defines history and shapes its outcome to their desires. They decide what gets remembered and what is forgotten to time.
With Hamilton and Moulin Rouge, both films show the importance of writing and claiming the narrative to tell your story so that it is not lost in history.