Extravaganza. It's been a long time since I've wanted to use that word in any context. Well, that's what Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is: an extravaganza. There's no other way for me to describe it.
If the musical genre of movies is dead, so be it. With music as varied as it is all the world over, and with so much of it readily available to anyone who's willing to look for it, what would the musical's place in the world of the movies be in this day and age? It has always been my humble opinion that any attempt to add a new film to this genre would require something radically different if it were to work. It would need to grab your attention. Bravo, Mr. Luhrmann. If I wanted to make a musical today, I would want it to be like this movie.
The ads for Moulin Rouge insist that it's about love. The story that it centers around is undoubtedly about that: a poet (Ewan McGregor) falls in love with a beautiful musical performer (Nicole Kidman) that an insanely jealous duke (Richard Roxburgh) wants for himself. And that's pretty much all I want to say about the story. Its setting is in Paris, 1900, but it really could have taken place anywhere; Paris and its famous nightclub, the Moulin Rouge, serve more as a stylistic basis for the movie than as an essential ingredient for the story. The story may be about truth, beauty, freedom, and love, but the movie is about music.
The music chosen for the movie is a wonderfully inspired pastiche of some original pieces and lots of modern pop music. All of it is sung and performed with gusto by the characters in the film. Be warned: if you're not warm to the idea of hearing a work of Madonna sung as a crazy and comcial musical number, this movie is probably not for you. But for those of you are open to new ideas executed in highly energetic and original ways, you'll be in for a treat. The music can come from any source, from Elton John to Nirvana. The pieces are modified and performed within the context of the movie, and the result is unexpectedly fun.
One thing I never really liked about older musicals was their presentation. Many of them can be viewed as something you could see on stage straightforwardly filmed and presented as a movie. Luhrmann throws out this banal concept and presents the movie is his own unique way. The movie is colorful, the scenes are hyper, and the edits are furious. The scenes and the transitions between them are kinetic and fantastic and can be downright silly. The visuals are memorable, from the elaborate scenes of choreographed can-can dancers and Moulin Rouge's patrons to the swooshing blades of the Moulin Rouge's windmill. No one can ever accuse Luhrmann of having no style, that is for certain. When you're caught up in it, you feel like you're on a roller coaster, and you can smile gleefully throughout.
Everything about the movie is presented exactly as it is meant to be. The performances are great, from those by Kidman and McGregor to the ones enthusiastically given by John Leguizamo, as McGregor's colleague, and Jim Broadbent, the stagemaster at the Moulin Rouge. Kidman and McGregor carry the movie with their acting and singing, but credit for a good time is given to all the actors and performers. For the most part, they are theatrically over-the-top, and you wouldn't want them to be any other way.
I know this movie isn't for everybody; take it the wrong way, and it could feel like a noisy, headache-inducing acid trip. No doubt there will be those who feel that way about it after seeing it. I wasn't one of them. I had a great time. I did have an issue or two with some things presented in the movie, but I don't feel it's necessary to get into them. I mainly want to say that I was glad to see this nutty, fantastic, over-dramatic, creative musical. I was happy to see all the music that was used in it treated as if they were all on equal ground, utilized for what they should always be utilized for: entertainment. Good songs and good music are timeless, despite their original presentations and despite whatever genres they were pigeon-holed in to. Moulin Rouge sets the music free and delivers an experience that is great to get into and get lost in. And you can't say this about many of the movies being made today: it is an experience... and an extravaganza.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 20, 2001
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for sexual content.)