Welcome to the Moulin Rouge! Welcome to a movie where emotions run deep and where one's heart is firmly affixed to the sleeve. Enter the world of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love, if you dare. For those who do brave the conventions of
the modern movie musical, Moulin Rouge offers great rewards. As co-writer and director, Baz Luhrmann seeks nothing less than to redefine the musical genre as a viable form of contemporary entertainment and he succeeds on most fronts. In this ambition he has the unenviable task to both play by the rules and break them to smithereens. It is not without reason that the title contains an exclamation point.
The setting is turn-of-the-century Paris, "1899, the summer of love" as our stalwart narrator informs us and as the camera swoops down from on high, the labyrinth of Parisian alleys unfolds towards Montmartre, that particularly hilly section of Paris known as the epicenter for all things bohemian. Fantasy prevails from the start. Even before this spectacular urban fly-by, the first visual we encounter is that of a curtain and the outline of a proscenium stage with a dwarfed orchestral conductor front and center. He waves his baton and leads an orchestra in an overture of the songs to come. The stage is set. The curtain parts and we are beckoned into a world of Luhrmann's imagination.
The camera delivers us to an apartment where our hero has just arrived. Christian (Ewan McGregor) is a poet with a highly developed sense of idealism. Against the wishes of his father, he has traveled to Paris to practice the art of poetry and quickly falls into the "right" crowd. Toulouse (John Leguizamo) is the vertically challenged lisping leader of this absinthe swilling group, which includes a narcoleptic Argentinean, a band of look-a-like musicians and a sexy yet egomaniacal author. Christian quickly becomes their literate inspiration and is tapped to pen their newest extravaganza, a musical entitled Spectacular Spectacular for the Moulin Rouge.
The club is a bustling vortex of Can-Can dancers, harlots, boisterous music and top hatted gentlemen ogling at the flashes of flesh on display. The reigning queen of the place is a singer, dancer and courtesan dubbed the Sparkling Diamond, Satine (Nicole Kidman). Her impresario is Zigler (James Broadbent), a carnival barker of a fellow with up-turned mustache and booming voice. It's love at first sight for Christian who gazes upon Satine with equal parts of awe and admiration. However, Zigler needs Satine to woo the Duke for financial backing. Christian and Satine carry on their doomed love affair under the Duke's nose, and the show does go on.
Such is the sketchiest of outlines of the rather threadbare plot, but musicals are not made of narrative stability. The scenario serves as merely the light armature upon which gossamer emotions are woven like so many strands of silk. The sentiments of love, beauty and truth cascade forth like a geyser of pop melodies bathing the audience with flashes of recognition. The encyclopedic nature of musical source material is dizzying and all contemporary. Christian's rooftop wooing of Satine shortly after their first encounter veers madly from the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" to Kiss's "I Was Made For Lovin' You" on to "One More Night" by Phil Collins, "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" and David Bowie's "Heroes" till the song finally rests elegantly on Elton John's "Your Song." Such cross-referential acrobatics are at once remarkably successful and exhausting. Luhrmann handily gets the point across: passion is best made evident through song. What else could explain our enduring fascination with catchy tunes which stand as emotional mile markers along the highway of our lives?
This conceit drives the success of the entire film. The utilization of this pop cultural iconography is thankfully made without irony or sarcasm. The snippets and homages retain their original sincerity. Stitched together by a mad sampling quilter, the resulting fabric is heartfelt and rather moving. The real trick to the success however is a complete release of disbelief.
The other songs flesh out the emotional trajectory of the narrative nicely. The film introduces Satine as she bellows out a nasty rendition of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" lacing in lines from Madonna's "Material Girl." Later in the film, a tango version of Sting's "Roxanne" juxtaposes a hot dance number with a torturous decision facing Satine. Madonna's discography resurfaces with a campy all-male rendition of "Like a Virgin," which would make any Rocky Horror Picture Show fan proud.
Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman inhabit their respective roles as the star-crossed lovers with familiarity and comfort. McGregor's doe eyed naiveté hits perfect pitch for a character who equates the words love and forever. Kidman displays a gentle and elegant voice in her singing while putting her alabaster skin to star studded good use. And Broadbent, as the ringmaster Zigler, treads the fine line between conniving villain and sympathetic father figure with uncanny grace.
But it is Luhrmann as the peripatetic director and visionary who is the real star here. The dance sequences move with a staccato visual rhythm worthy of any good MTV music video. The sets have such visual opulence so as to sometimes draw focus away from the unfolding scenes. This leads to a heightened sense of magic upon which any good musical is founded. The choreography too quotes liberally, touching historically on the Can-Can itself to Gene Kelly's timeless "Singing in the Rain" buoyancy. As our intrepid band of thespians are working on the musical Spectacular Spectacular, it begins to mirror the plot of its performers and the feelings that are evoked in the characters and the audience run close to the bone. The sudden bursts of song mid scene seem natural in the milieu that Luhrmann has established while the recognizability of these songs as our soundtrack emparts personal meaning on the unfolding fiction. Luhrmann, by tipping his hat to certain conventions and thumbing his nose at others, has refashioned the musical into a stirring piece of filmic art that is relevant in the contemporary cultural landscape. Why? Because he can Can-Can.