Silly Love Songs
Musical anachronism seems to be all the cinematic rage this summer. In addition to A Knight’s Tale‘s medieval spectators kickin’ out Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” along comes turn of the century British ex-pat Christian (Ewan McGregor), crooning Elton John’s “Your Song” to his favorite courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge mines the twentieth century to construct a musical extravaganza totally out of time with its narrative world. And it works, most of the time. Music is both Moulin Rouge‘s success and its failure: its po-mo pastiche succeeds, while its more traditional musical genre stylings often fail.
So, in addition to McGregor’s “Your Song,” we have Kidman singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl,” a tango version of The Police’s “Roxanne,” Valeria covering El DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” and the totally fabulous remake of Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink. Sounds kinda corny, huh? Or like a cheap attempt to appeal to “crossover” audiences (that is, the all-powerful teen summer movie dollar) through a “hip” soundtrack? It certainly might have failed in less capable hands than Luhrmann’s. Anyone familiar with Strictly Ballroom (1992) or William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) knows that the director takes what might first appear to be cheap character gags (ballroom dancing prima donnas, Shakespearean drag queens) and transforms them into camp gems. (Actually, I guess cheap theatrics are the very stuff of camp, whether in character, scene, setting or design.)
The film’s quirky musical selections also work on another level. Luhrmann has said (to Time‘s Richard Corliss) that he wanted to “steal bits of culture from the 20th century and use it to make a code… to access emotion and character.” Certainly most of us can understand Satine’s selfish motivations through Marilyn and Madonna, or Christian’s swoony lovey-dovey-ness through Elton John more than we might through unfamiliar “authentic” period music. Additionally, the film’s songs just feel “appropriate.” I imagine that at the “real” Moulin Rouge, the thrill wasn’t just a bit of nipple and a flash of panties, but the whole entertainment package, which no doubt included exuberant “daring” new music intended to shock and titillate the sensitivity of the bourgeoisie—kind of like rock-and-roll or punk in our times. And so, the most effective numbers are those by some of our own “daring” new artists: Beck’s deconstruction of David Bowie’s self-destructing “Diamond Dogs” and Fatboy Slim’s hyped-up electronica version of the cancan. At the very least, Moulin Rouge‘s music indicates Luhrmann’s camp sensibility, which is, in essence (and as Susan Sontag noted years ago), a love of the “unnatural,” of artifice and exaggeration—just like at the Moulin Rouge, “real” or imagined.
Unfortunately, however, these reinterpretations take second seat to more traditional movie musical numbers, which take up most of the film. In many ways, the incessant singing of plot unnecessarily complicates the film’s tragic love story. At times, it drags the movie to a halt, as in our lovers’ often-repeated duet, “Come What May.” Okay, we get the picture, you vow to stay together no matter what. Enough already.
Luhrmann’s film doesn’t really add anything to, or play around with, the conventions of the musical, a genre long since out of fashion in our more “sophisticated” Hollywood, except maybe a joyous overindulgence in their spectacle. Luhrmann has clearly been influenced by the opulence of India’s Bollywood musicals, and the film nods nicely to this influence in the play-within-a-play set in a Maharajah’s court. Moulin Rouge doesn’t try to complicate or redefine the standards of the musical, as much as it tries to bring it back in vogue. I don’t anticipate the film leading to a new slew of musicals, but it’s a nice try nonetheless (that is, if you like that sort of thing).
As I said the plot is pretty basic, chronicling the love affair between the most desirable courtesan at the Moulin Rouge, Satine, and the struggling writer Christian. Enter the villainous Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh), who will supply the financing the club needs in order to become a “legitimate” theater, provided that Satine becomes his property and his alone—as he remarks at one point, he is a jealous man who doesn’t like other people “touching his things.” You can see where this is going. The lovers must be found out, the Duke must rage, and someone must die. There isn’t really much for the rest of the cast to do, other than sing and dance, which they all do with verve.
In particular, there is nothing much for John Leguizamo to do in the role of Henry de Toulouse Lautrec, and actually, his song and dance pales in comparison to the rest of the cast. We all know that Lautrec liked to hang out at the Moulin Rouge, painting the dancing girls, and that he had a real taste for both absinthe and the ladies, specifically the lesbian dancers who wanted nothing to do with him. Moulin Rouge however, makes little of Lautrec’s sexual peccadilloes or even his artistic talents, but plays up his dwarfish stature and speech impediment instead. There is no reason to include Lautrec in this story of the naughty nightclub, other than to add a note of historical “authenticity.” But really, Moulin Rouge is so surreal, or rather hyperreal, why bother?
Like Luhrmann’s other films, actually even more than his other films, Moulin Rouge is from start to finish beautiful to look at. The sumptuous over-stylization of Paris and Montmartre in 1899-1900 is gorgeous, and the film’s use of color and costume is delicious. Additionally, Luhrmann keeps viewers constantly on their toes with swoopy camera work and visual tricks like little time-lapsed segments. The best scene, and the one everyone will surely be waiting for, is our introduction to Luhrmann’s version of the famed nightclub. As we first sweep through the doors of the Moulin Rouge, we are presented with a racy and exuberant fairyland. The scene cleverly mixes up the already mentioned re-do’s of “Lady Marmalade” and the cancan, and adds Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to spice things up—as if the scene needed any spicing. Here the Moulin Rouge is decadent, sexy, and totally Rabelaisian. You can’t help but want to join in the party. Unfortunately, the rest of the film never quite recovers from this initial excitement, and the film gets bogged down in its own rather hokey love story. At one point during her duet medley with Christian, Satine sings the chorus from Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs”: “You’d think people would have had enough of silly love songs.” Yep.