No-one has ever accused director Baz Luhrmann of subtlety, and with good reason, for excess is his stock-in-trade. His debut film Aussie-dance comedy Strictly Ballroom is an outlandish, over the top camera-spinning celebration of dance, romance and filmmaking at its most hysterical. His follow up and second instalment in his so-called “Red Curtain Trilogy” Romeo + Juliet is Shakespeare’s tragedy via MTV.
For his third entry Luhrmann drew on Bollywood cinema, the greek tragedy Orpheus and Eurydice and the old musicals Hollywood no longer made. Along with his co-writer Craig Pearce they fashioned a story that would call to mind the show-within-a-show nature of Cabaret, but with pioneering romantic lead Christian, the music included modern era songs to show how ahead of his time he was.
Luhrmann’s flair for the melodramatic and the fantastical is on full display here, Moulin Rouge! despite being made in Luhrmann’s native Australia was a big Hollywood epic the likes of which weren’t made anymore. Many people considered the musical film dead thanks to the the huge failure of the Olivia Newton John vehicle Xanadu. Hollywood wouldn’t put money into old-fashioned musicals unless they came in the form of Disney animated movies – from ’89 to ’99 Disney actually had a Renaissance with animated musicals making the most money their films had made in decades.
It should be noted the only musical of note made in that time was Alan Parker’s Evita in 1996 which while given mixed reviews did earn a few technical nominations at the Oscars. Its success though, was attributed to those who had seen the original run of the Lloyd-Webber production, and one of the complaints of the film was that it wasn’t very well directed despite Parker’s musical pedigree.
What sets Moulin Rouge! apart from the old fashioned musicals is its blend of genres. At its heart it’s a love story between innocent romantic Christian (Ewan McGregor) and jaded beautiful courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). Their encounter in a giant elephant in which Christian sings a barrage of love songs from the past thirty years shows the film’s desire to be a romance. Yet, scenes with Jim Broadbent’s Harold Zidler, the head of the Moulin Rouge, and his desperate attempts to keep the villainous Duke (Richard Roxburgh) funding them is filled with bawdy innuendo and physical comedy.
These often swift changes in tone might be considered extreme to many, but in the hands of Luhrmann he turns it into a cabaret show that offers a little bit of everything. The flashy dance number of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend juxtapose with the more intimate and sensual El Tango de Roxanne. Both of which stand as starkly different to Jim Broadbent shrieking Like a Virgin to distract the Duke from his absent fiancé.
The film’s showier nature, mixing fast music video cutting, knowing tone changes and the choice to cherry pick songs from the past few years to turn into this red coated fairground of a film helped bring the musical from stuffy to modern in extreme fashion. Its style can be seen in the following year’s Chicago in which director Rob Marshall merges the showmanship of the stage with the ins-and-outs of the legal process at the heart of the story.
It should be noted that while Moulin Rouge! was only nominated for Best Picture, with Chicago winning it and a spate of other awards. Yet the legacy of Moulin Rouge! is a little more complicated than a few awards. It signalled a change in the way audiences viewed musicals. While most were either Old Hollywood vehicles for the likes of John Travolta or Gene Kelly, stagey in their construction to show off the physical prowess of their leads, Luhrmann made the musical about the technical expertise of the director.
Despite their best efforts most of the cast are not Broadway singers, Kidman is the most adept, McGregor does well, but generally they are serviceable, using augmented audio to make the actors appear to be stronger singers, and the constant cutting allowing the paper over the actors lack of formal dance training. This would become the template for many musicals. Chicago is synonymous with the constant cutting during dance sequences, as well as the glaring issue that Richard Gere is not a well prepared singer.
This effect can be seen in works like The Phantom of the Opera where many of the cast – Gerard Butler, Ciaran Hinds, Minnie Driver – were not vocally up to the challenge. It has been said that since Moulin Rouge! there has always been a case of casting at least one person in a musical who cannot sing. This can be seen in the casting of Pierce Brosnan, Russell Crowe and even Ryan Gosling.
Despite not being the first “Jukebox Musical” – famous musical films All that Jazz, Singin’ in the Rain and the previously mentioned Xanadu were all made up of popular or pre-existing songs, but Moulin Rouge! brought about a surge in films that used pre-existing music as songs. Some, like Moulin Rouge! would take songs from various artists and fashion a narrative. Films like Romance & Cigarettes, Happy Feet & Happy Feet Two, Rock of Ages, Walking on Sunshine, Trolls. It could be argued that the style, tone and method of the film has been the biggest influence of Ryan Murphy’s extremely popular series Glee.
Even the “original” song Come What May was actually a holdover from Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, considered to be the film’s closing credit song it was swapped for the more modern sounding Lovefool. Come What May was reused as the love song between Christian and Satine that becomes the recurrent sound of the film, signalling the undying romantic love between the two.
The resurgence of musicals to the mainstream has meant that Jukebox Musicals have often focussed on one music artists and fashioned stories around them – Mamma Mia! & Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Abba), Gnomeo & Juliet and Rocketman (Elton John), Sunshine on Leith (The Proclaimers), Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), Across the Universe (The Beatles) and We Will Rock You (Queen).
The DNA of Moulin Rouge! lives in most movie musicals in the modern era, mixing the high emotion and a desire to entertain. Perhaps most obvious would be The Greatest Showman, the hugely popular but critically divisive musical starring Hugh Jackman. In telling the story of P.T. Barnum, what the filmmakers have done is to heighten the reality of the story; it’s Barnum’s story if Barnum told it. Playing to the audience in the back row, no emotion left unsung, no joke left untold, no truth left un-jazzed. The use of more modern sounding songs in a story set in the 1800s to illustrate Barnum’s forward-thinking mind.
Even down to The Greatest Showman’s lamentable decision to not use an actual person with medical Dwarfism for the role of Tom Thumb appears to be in homage to Moulin Rouge! where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is played by John Leguizamo walking on his knees – no really, he walks on his knees it’s often very obvious. Neither film can be lauded as particularly sympathetic to people different from the straight while male protagonist, including the use of a muscular black man who has minimal dialogue.
Despite the fact that in the intervening years Luhrmann has only made two films – overwrought historical drama Australia and excessive music-inflected The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! remains Luhrmann’s crowning achievement, a film so unabashed in its modern-old fashioned hybrid that it helped bring back an almost dead genre. Despite the efforts of La La Land to bring back the old fashioned musical, it remains the imprint of Moulin Rouge! that remains when we watch A-list actors croon on screen.
All this, and Jim Broadbent sings a Madonna song.