Moulin Rouge Review
By Joe Lozito
First let me apologize for not seeing this movie sooner. I wish I could have urged more people to see it while it was still gracing the big screens. Now that its run in theaters is waning it may be more difficult to find, but it is well worth the effort. "Moulin Rouge", the unceasingly thrilling film by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet), is one of the most exciting pieces of filmmaking to hit theaters in a long time. And - surprise! - it's also a musical.
The film uses songs both new and from pop culture to tell the age-old story of the penniless writer (Ewan McGregor) and the beautiful courtesan (Nicole Kidman) and their star-crossed love. It's a shame that young people may not be as drawn to this film as something like "Pearl Harbor", whose trite love story pales even further and more literally in comparison to this one. It's no surprise though since the film is almost an opera. It is certainly operatic in its themes and heightened emotions. But Mr. Luhrmann's cast is uniformly playing at the top of their game. Mr. McGregor (who knew the man who would be Obi-Wan had such a strong Tenor voice?) and Ms. Kidman (whose porcelain beauty and significant talent have never been more on display) carry the film effortlessly over the film's roller coaster-like emotional arc. Also, Jim Broadbent, so wonderful in 1999's equally operatic "Topsy-Turvy", nearly steals every scene as Moulin Rouge owner Harold Zidler, and John Leguizamo gives a surprisingly nuanced performance at famed painter Toulouse Lautrec.
The characters in the film don't live in Paris as much as they live above Paris. Like Tim Burton's "Batman" or Alex Proyas' "The Crow", the cityscape appears to be at once larger than life and miniscule. The first exhilarating minutes of the film grab the audience and literally thrust them in and out of the streets of 19th century Paris. Mr. Luhrmann's camera, aided by the resourceful cinematography of Donald McAlpine, seems to be able to go anywhere and the characters nearly fly through the streets.
"Moulin Rouge" feels like the next evolution of the musical. From Classical Opera to Gilbert & Sullivan to Broadway musical to music video; Mr. Luhrmann steals from them all! In fact, it seems that the film was not written (by Mr. Luhrmann and Craig Pierce) but rather it was composed. It's got plot points from "Camille", "La Traviata" and "La Bohème" (the latter of which Mr. Luhrmann directed in 1993), the emotions of a Broadway show and musical numbers taken directly from the pop culture of the last three decades. I assume some people will be turned off by the seemingly anachronistic presence of popular music staples such as "Roxanne" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit". But to that criticism I have two responses: (1) the music in this film is exponentially better than any of the formulaic drivel that has populated recent musicals both animated and on Broadway, and (2) Mr. Luhrmann doesn't simply place the songs in the film, he mixes them and re-imagines them and in doing so he uncovers the overlooked poetry of some fine lyricists. Indeed, many songwriters owe him a debt of gratitude for proving that a song doesn't have to be old for it to be taken seriously as art. If you have ever sung along with a song to which you know the lyrics backwards and forewords, you'll appreciate this film.
The setting of the Moulin Rouge also works perfectly for the kind of over-the-top musical debauchery that ensues from Mr. Luhrmann's pilfering. Mr. McGregor's young writer is supposed to be leading a kind of musical revolution. He's so ahead of his time that he quotes songs that won't be written for decades! Only occasionally, in spinning his webs of musical mayhem, does Mr. Luhrmann allow the film to spin out of his control. Layering line after line of disparate lyrics on top of booming orchestrations and Mtv-style jump-cutting can be a little overwhelming and sometimes seems to be a replacement for real storytelling.
But I contend that this can be forgiven. Mr. Luhrmann's film is a celebration. It celebrates everything that has made musicals and operas popular for centuries: life and, of course, love. Above all, love. Mr. Lurhmann must be a romantic at heart. He obviously had an immense love for this material and it is palpable. It's up on screen in every frame. And, as someone in the film would say, love is all he needs.