Sunday, December 1, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Moulin Rouge

Last time, I was talking about how I was running out of musicals made in the last 20 years to review, and that I would soon be stuck reviewing musicals that I dread.  But lo and behold, I remembered that there were still some good musicals out there!  How could I have forgotten the musical that got modern musicals rolling?

Moulin Rouge (2001) is less a traditional musical than an amped-up, psychedelic jukebox musical sprung from  the mind of director Baz Luhrmann.  Although set in Paris at the fin de siecle, it contains songs like "Roxanne" (the Police), "Like a Virgin" (Madonna), and "Your Song" (Elton John).  The actors sing with their own voices, but no doubt there was some Auto-Tune sweetener along the way.

Almost everything about Moulin Rouge is secondary to the visuals -- the kaleidoscope of colors and constant swirling motion expressed through quick-cutting, fast zooms, and pans.  The visual craziness is a Baz Luhrmann trademark, though it would never be as giddy as it is here.  Trying to take it all in leaves you disoriented, though thankfully after the first half-hour or so, it calms down.

Moulin Rouge feels like an attempt to see the musical in a whole new way.  In so doing, it succeeds just slightly more than it fails.  Indeed, Moulin Rouge hovers close to Across the Universe, another visually inventive movie with a story that could not quite keep up.  But Moulin Rouge is in the Right column because it manages to be a little quirkier and more clever, and the pacing is a little better -- though over two hours, the movie never sags.

That said, I was very tempted to put this movie in the Wrong column because something about it grates on me.  Its boastful "look at me, I'm so outrageous!" tone; its attitude that the modern viewer will only watch a musical if it is edited for the shortest of attention spans; and the fact that when all is said and done, it really isn't that unique.  The basics of the story have been frequently told: Poor Boy wins Beautiful Woman, nearly loses Beautiful Woman to Rich Evil Man, thinks that Beautiful Woman does not love him, learns that she does love him, and then cries as she drops dead of a 19th Century disease.

In this case, a poor writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), moves to the Montmartre district in Paris, where he learns that his neighbors are writing a musical that they hope to sell to the famous nightclub, the Moulin Rouge.  Impressed with Christian's impromptu lyrics (from The Sound of Music), they smuggle him into the Moulin Rouge to persuade Satine (Nicole Kidman), the nightclub's premiere couretsan.  Satine mistakes him for a duke that she is supposed to sleep with and falls in love, only to learn that the real duke, a sneering fop, is waiting outside.  After he demands to know why Christian (and the other writers) is in the room, they quickly create a storyline for the musical and persuade the duke to finance it.  From there, Christian woos Satine and tries to win her love.  Because love is all you need... unless you have a 19th Century disease that you choose to ignore to your own folly.

Again, while the story has a "been there, done that" feel, its energy and visual excitement largely make up for it.  Without further ado:

The Good

1.  Holds the Eye.  To say the least.  As I said, candy colors and manic camera movement are Luhrmann trademarks.  For much of the time, the screen is filled with so much activity that it threatens to exhaust you.  Due to the use of quick, jerky editing, a lot of group numbers have the appearance of a picture book being flipped rapidly to show a character's movement.  Fortunately, the more serious scenes dial back the mania, though not always enough.  During the "Roxanne" scene, I had trouble following exactly what happened with Satine and the duke in the end, and the pivotal final sequence was also somewhat confusing.  Yet this is no doubt Luhrmann's intent -- to make you dizzy, disoriented, exhilarated.  One scene that captures this very well is the introduction to the Moulin Rouge.  Even if the effect can get annoying, it is for the most part enjoyable, and at least at the time felt like something new.

2.  Good Use of Music.  I don't just mean use of the songs themselves, although many of the songs are used in ways that help you hear them anew.  I'm thinking in particular of "Roxanne," a tight, tense dance sequence during a pivotal scene, or "Like a Virgin" as a comic relief highlight.  But I am also thinking of the musical montages, the use of mash-ups, and just the way music is used in general to create a soundscape and highlight emotion.

3.  It's a Trite Formula, But Damned If It Doesn't Work!  I did not so much buy the "instant love" aspect as I did Satine's struggle to cope with her situation.  Maybe because I like Nicole Kidman better in this movie than Ewan McGregor (whom I've only ever really liked in Trainspotting), but I actually found her "doomed Victorian prostitute with a heart of gold" portrayal to be rather touching.  Satine is clever, vivacious, and ambitious, and in the course of a few days learns (1) that she is in love possibly for the first time and (2) that she is dying.  What will she do with this knowledge?  The best that she can do.    

4.  Has a Sense of Humor About Itself.  Even though Moulin Rouge's story has a sentimental core, it still knows enough to poke fun at itself.  Christian's opening story is injected with random shots of his stern father condemning his choice of the Bohemian lifestyle.  Then when Satine learns Christian's identity, she sighs: "You're not another talented, impoverished writer?", or something of the like.  The movie knows, at its bottom, that it has a silly premise, and despite its wholehearted embrace of said premise, it is willing to sometimes let the audience know.    

The Bad

1.  Derivative.  Despite the color and mania that the movie brings, there is something moldy around the edges.  My problem is not that the story is derivative, but that the music is.  I realize that's part of the premise -- "look at how our banal modern ballads are used in a completely different setting!" -- but it leaves me feeling like the movie missed out on the chance to be truly original.  Why go for the easily identifiable pop music when you could install some unique indie music instead?  It seems like (though that may be because I've been fairly out of touch with what's current over the past five years) Luhrmann experiments more with music in The Great Gatsby than he does here.  Here, it's: "We need songs about love!  How about 'All You Need Is Love'?"  Or something by Elton John... or U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)"... or...  Though I will give Luhrmann credit for featuring Nat King Cole's melancholy "Nature's Boy" from 1948.

Ironically, the one original number in the movie, "Come What May," sounds as much like a derivative pop ballad as anything else in the catalogue.

2.  Empty.  Earlier, I said that despite its rehashed nature, I sympathized with Satine regarding her predicament.  I wish I could say the same about the love story itself.  Part of the problem is that Ewan McGregor oozes such cheesiness in this role, I am almost repelled by him, and I don't buy that he and Satine are ever really in love.  If they say that they are in love, it is because the story requires them to be.  Because I don't buy the love story, what should be exhilarating feels, at times, empty.    


Moulin Rouge could have been a failure, but instead is a flashy, visually splendid, and mostly entertaining film.  While the sum of its parts do not quite add up to a whole, there is still enough to make it a must-watch movie and likely a classic.  It is credited with making musicals popular once more... though personally, I think they never should have gone out of style to begin with.       

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney Todd

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray        

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