If The Sound of Music is the peak of the musical genre, this fun, gorgeous and incredibly idiosyncratic musical is the genres logical endpoint.
Moulin Rouge! is the film that singlehandedly resurrected the musical genre in the 2000s though only for a short while and while beloved by most is also a film most fans would describe as a ‘guilty pleasure.’
Why? Well the easy answer is that Moulin Rouge! is sort of stupid at first glance. It’s a style-over-substance thing, it’s well presented but also doesn’t seem to follow any internal logic. Now this is the very reason I could not stand the film the first time I saw it, but having watched it again recently, I realised just how wrong I and some other outliers truly are. Moulin Rouge! is a lot of things but one thing it’s certainly not is stupid or lacking in substance. The film is incredibly idiosyncratic to the point of being abject nonsense both in tone and presentation, yes, but there is a lot more to it than a fantastic soundtrack and a great art direction.
For those who somehow haven’t watched this baffling early 2000’s piece of pop culture, Moulin Rouge! is an Australian/American production directed by Baz Luhrmann and is especially famous for its use of cover songs from various pop artists from the 20th century such as Nirvana, The Police, The Beatles, David Bowie and classical musicals such as The Sound of Music and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It takes place in Paris in the titular cabaret Moulin Rouge at the end of the 19th century. The basic story covers a love triangle between the exquisite courtesan Satine, a hopelessly romantic poet who falls for her, Christian, and a bitterly jealous Duke who is promised Satine in exchange for financing Moulin Rouge early on in the film.
The film is easily recognised for its insanely fever-pitched style which has the camera in constant motion with a very fast paced editing style, will often break basic continuity rules such as using jumpcuts and breaking the 180 degree rule and use out-of-nowhere and cartoonlike sound effects to emphasis its slap stick humor.
Take the first big musical/dance number introducing the Moulin Rouge for instance. The musical number is a hyperactive cover of Lady Marmelade performed by Aguilera, Pink and Lil’ Kim mixed in with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Fatboy Slim’s Because We Can. While both the set design and costuming is stellar and most assuredly one of the highlights of the film, the camera is in constant motion, confusing the audience with close-ups of random dancers, courtesans and attendees and will randomly switch over to close-ups of the owner of the cabaret, Harold Zidler, played by an unusually puffy, manic Jim Broadbent.
This scene like many others at first seems completely ludicrous as the different songs never really have time to stand out or mesh with one another and the insane cinematography ruins the beautiful set design. However, having this apparent overload of different styles on display is neither misguided nor random, it is in fact very intentional. See to understand this camera style and asynchronous choices of music we need only look at the perspective from which these events unfold. This perspective is shown to be the smitten poet Christian as the framing device of the film has him narrating the film. And so when we are first introduced to the cabaret we see it through the eyes of the inexperienced Christian who is quickly overloaded with impressions. It’s first when Satine enters the frame he focuses and with this the camera zooms out and allows the audience to take the mise-en-scène in.
Another example of how the use of cover songs and the mixing of these are used to set the mood is the big romantic musical duet between Christian and Satine called Elephant Song Medley. The premise of the duet is Christian wanting to explain the concept of love to Satine and sweep her of her feet which he does through a various mix of classic pop songs’ chorus. The number starts with The Beatles’ All You Need is Love, switching to KISS’ I Was Made For Lovin’ You, then over to U2’s Pride as Christian flirts around with Satine while she playfully rejects his passes.
The tone quickly changes as Christian gets more serious switching to Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me and Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs yet turns jovial again as the number switches over to Jennifer Warnes’ and Joe Cocker’s duet Love Lift Us Up and then David Bowie’s Heroes. It finally climaxes with the ultimate love song Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You as the two lovers embrace one another and then ends with Elton John’s How Wonderful Life Is.
Elephant Song Medley in particular shows that these musical numbers is not to be taken literally. Of course it’s silly that a poet at the end of the 19th century would know David Bowie and Elton John. But these songs should be understood on an expressionistic level, both paying homage to the pop artists of these songs showing off their universal appeal and at the same time using them to set up an immediately convincing romance between Christian and Sabine.
This use of music and cinematography as an extension of the film’s characters’ emotional state shows the clear understanding Baz Luhrmann has for cinematic and visual storytelling. And yet the reason this film works where other of his films such as The Great Gatsby fail so miserably is because of the fantastic casting and performances on display. Not enough good can be said of the genuinely fantastic chemistry between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in their respective roles as Christian and Satine. McGregor not only has a fantastic singing voice but with his naïve puppy eyed innocence is completely convincing as the archetype for the softhearted poet. Kidman on the other hand is positively radiant as Satine playing the role as a super starlet hogging at every scene with her luscious red hair and flashy outfits all the while having the sort of charisma and raw sexual energy usually relegated to Sharon Stone and Jane Fonda in their prime. If the use of cover songs sets up the romance between Christian and Sabine, it is the two actors who completely sell it.
However, the two actors who truly steal the show is Richard Roxburg as The Duke and Jim Broadbent as Zidler. Their duet of Madonna’s Like a Virgin is nothing short of masterful as Broadbent constantly mugs at the camera with his bug eyes all the while Roxburg does his best John Waters impression.
What annoyed me the most about Moulin Rouge! the first time I watched it was that I didn’t get it. The film is so ludicrous and crass, telling such a bland love story I didn’t get what the hell the appeal was and so I relegated it as a guilty pleasure, something stupid that people never-the-less enjoyed watching just by the sheer gal and extravagance of it all. Oh, how wrong I was.
Moulin Rouge! is incredibly clever and a fantastic ride, best described as a Rube Goldberg machine, a film that so confidently oozes with such originality and such style yet never cracks and never does anything tonally out of place. It is a film that perfectly fits the description ‘controlled chaos.’ And while it did lead to a couple of other decent musicals such as Chicago and the vastly underappreciated Repo: The Genetic Opera, I also think there’s a good reason why no one has been able to replicate it including the director himself. Because it’s homage to 20th century pop music and classical musicals, its MTV-style approach to editing, its lavish set designs and narrative that’s straight out of a Shakespearian tragedy seems to be the logical endpoint for the genre in the same way Unforgiven was for the western genre.
There just isn’t anything else to say or anywhere else to go. And while I can certainly understand why some people would be put off by its garish stylistic choices I certainly hope this article has enlightened you on why Moulin Rouge! is anything but stupid. And has shown, why everyone else loves it, and why I know you love it.,