‘Moulin Rouge’ Is a Silly, Campy, Wonderful Effort to Save the Movie Musical from Itself

It would be easy to dismiss ‘Moulin Rouge’ as color and noise, but it absorbs the influence of music videos and creates a lavish production that still feels fresh.

At the time of its 2001 release, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge was something of an anomaly: a bold, unapologetic movie musical released during the genre’s extended hibernation. Almost a decade later, as it comes to Blu-Ray disc for the first time, it’s a different sort of rarity: a bold, unapologetic movie musical that’s also terrific. Chicago, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Mamma Mia have since brought in more cash and a few awards. Still, Moulin Rouge is one of the only recent musicals to understand the potential for this genre on film and to move it forward in any appreciable way.

And Luhrmann does move forward, despite relying on some hoary genre tropes in his plotting. Aspiring writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) moves to Paris in 1899 (the “summer of love”, his narration informs us) and lucks into a job with a gaggle of bohemians writing a musical, to star the beautiful courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), who longs to become a serious actress. Through a series of amped-up misunderstandings, farcical complications, and musical courtships, Satine and Christian fall into a semi-forbidden love; she is promised to the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who has agreed to finance the show.

On paper, it’s all more or less musical boilerplate: young lovers, hissing bad guys, jealousies, starry-eyed belief in the power of art and song, nothing more sophisticated than Spectacular Spectacular, the musical Christian pens in an excited, absinthe-fueled blur. Prior to making Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann developed a style of crossbreeding theatricality with MTV-ready images in his version of Romeo and Juliet, also new to Blu-Ray. The two movies even follow similar patterns: hushed prologue leaping into a wild, hyperkinetic opening half-hour or so, eventually giving way to more emotional anguish. The cutting and pace remain fast but to a different end: smoothing the transition from frantic camp into earnest, visually stunning melodrama. Moulin Rouge takes this technique further, making it feel more timeless than the audacious, great-looking, but less elegant Romeo.

Without paying attention to this shift, it would be easy to dismiss Moulin Rouge as an overedited escalation of color and noise; certainly, that’s a common reaction, rife with complaints about how no song is played straight through and no dance routines are fully visible. But Luhrmann and his editor Jill Bilcock reach beyond traditional musical staging, absorbing the influence of music videos (which essentially replaced movie musicals for much of the ’80s and ’90s) and creating a lavish production that still feels fresh.

The “Elephant Love Medley” sequence, for example, in which McGregor and Kidman sing their way through half a dozen famous love songs strung together, anticipates the mash-up trend that would float through the aughts — only the Luhrmann version has a giddy, emotional kick rather than just the fleeting cleverness of novelty. Christian and Satine aren’t just falling in love with each other, but the idea of being in love, and the rush of pop hits, from Elton John to Paul McCartney to David Bowie (notably, not music from the era), can’t contain their oversized ardor.

The movie might seem oversized, too, and unwieldy in its heedless pursuit of romantic sensation, but Luhrmann and company are speaking in cinematic language, not translating from Broadway — and they do so with sophistication. Observe the first performance of “Come What May”, the film’s signature original tune. Luhrmann intercuts the dress rehearsal of the production-within-the-film and the lovers rehearsing and singing to each other in more private moments. Fantasy, reality, and the staged bits in between all intersect.

The effect is not disorienting but rather lovely — and ruthlessly efficient. The relationship between Christian and Satine is a love-at-first-sight movie-world archetype; you don’t get to eavesdrop on a lot of their conversations. Their singing functions, as it does in many classic musicals, as shorthand for infatuation and chemistry; the cuts between single shots of both actors singing to each other emphasize the distance they’re trying to bridge. The “Come What May” sequence also manages to grow the seeds of jealousy from the insecure Duke, building to a turning point in the film’s narrative: I’ve never seen Moulin Rouge with an audience that failed to gasp at Christian’s outburst of “because she doesn’t love you!”

“Come What May” is but a single example; just about any musical number in this movie is cohesive in its own way, even if the songs stop and start up and mix together, and the filmmaking in any of these sequences — a lovely “Your Song”, a passionate “Roxanne”, or a campy, insane “Like a Virgin” — puts Rob Marshall’s entire directorial career to shame. The Blu-Ray edition includes test footage for a cut opening that would’ve had McGregor warbling “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens and even this, in its unfinished and lengthy state, has more style and coherence than many finished musicals.

Though it offers these less fully produced moments, the disc nonetheless finds ways to imitate Luhrmann’s glorious overload. Watching the film in enhanced commentary mode, viewers can hear Luhrmann and cowriter Craig Pearce discuss the film, while storyboards, concept art, and rehearsal footage appear in the corners of the screen. This is preferable to watching the features straight through, as many of them are shrunk to a frame roughly a quarter of the screen size, rough viewing even on a decent-sized television.

Though some of the featurettes are imported from the lavish two-disc DVD, any fan of Moulin Rouge with a Blu-Ray player will probably covet this version to better drink in its visual rapture. In fact, its colors pop so vividly in high definition that you may have to fiddle with your settings; it’s tempting to make it look as bright and shiny as possible, but beware the “dynamic” setting, which will make just about any movie, especially one this heavy with computer effects, look simultaneously eye-popping and weirdly fake, like a live HD broadcast of itself.

For all its theatrical artifice, Moulin Rouge should never come off as fake; even in its silliest, campiest, or wildest moments, Luhrmann’s drive to save the movie musical from itself is utterly sincere.

RATING 9 / 10