Once upon a time, musicals were the apex predator of the Hollywood movie machine. For audiences that still remembered the glory of live musical theatre, or were still struck by the novelty of film with sound, what greater entertainment could there be than a story about a boy, a girl, a huge chorus, and plenty of opportunities for the whole cast to spontaneously break out in song? Alas, nothing lasts forever, and the musical found itself relegated to the periphery of moviemaking, a format best left to eccentric directors, children’s fare, and the occasional flash of brilliance for a story so far out there that it could only be told with song. That is where you’ll find Moulin Rouge!, a hyperactive, baroque tale of art, love, and obligation that is absolutely drenched in color and sound, and reminds everyone who watches it why the musical will never truly die.
In this story, the curtain rises on Paris circa 1900, where a bohemian writer named Christian falls in with a troupe of theatric performers led by the talented but eccentric Toulouse. Together, Christian and Toulouse’s troupe team up to score a gig performing at the Moulin Rouge, a cabaret run by a hyperactive showman named Harold Zidler. Zidler’s “Diamond Dog Dancers” and his top courtesan, the alluring singer Satine, are the top draw in Paris, performing to teeming throngs of enamored gentlemen every evening. But the Moulin Rouge! Is bleeding cash, forcing Zidler to seek financing from the insane Duke of Monroth, who agrees to fund Zidler so long as he gets Satine all to himself. Reclutantly, Zidler agrees, and Satine accepts her fate, resigned to this most repugnant of occupational hazards. But then she meets Christian, and the two fall in love at the worst possible time. Christian wants Satine to run away with him, but Satine knows that there is nowhere she can run where Monroth won’t find her.
As Monroth becomes increasingly impatient to sample the goods Zidler has promised him, Satine and Christian live on borrowed time during the Moulin Rouge’s renovation into a state-of-the-art theatre where a play written by Christian and starring Satine will headline. But the whole thing is just a metaphor for their doomed romance, and there can only be so much before Monroth simply decides that if he’s not going to get busy with Satine, he just might have to kill somebody. By the time it’s all over, there are moments in the spotlight, pledges made, promises broken, and that most dangerous area where love, lust, honor and violence tend to intersect with tragic consequences. Oh, and there is music. Such wonderful, wonderful music.
Moulin Rouge! Is the third of Australian Baz Lurhmann’s “Red Curtain” trilogy, a set of theatrically themed movies united more by Luhrmann’s distinctive style than by their thematic elements or story. Of the three, Moulin Rouge! Is easily the most ambitious and intricate, bedecked with epic musical numbers augmented by a crazy mash-up of popular music recast in cabaret style, eye-popping sets, and plenty of special effects (like a CGI green absinthe faerie who flits in every now and again to remind us how bonkers this whole movie really is). Technically, the movie is a marvel of production. Artistically, it’s a knockout, providing one of the greatest motion picture soundtracks of the early 2000s, featuring performances by Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman on the movie’s signature love songs. It’s got Christina Aguilera, Lil’Kim, Mýa, Missy Elliott and Pink on a chart-topping rendition of “Lady Marmalade.” And it provides a cinematic jukebox of mash-ups featuring David Bowie, Fatboy Slim, DeBarge, Madonna, Nirvana, T.Rex, Queen, Elton John, along with musical cameos by Joe Cocker, the Beatles, Kiss, Phil Collins, U2, and more.
The opening numbers are especially memorable, including a wild medley that introduces Zidler and his Diamond Dogs and segues into a kind of musical battle between the Moulin Rouge’s lustful clientele belting out the chorus to “Smells like Teen Spirit” while Zidler and his working ladies of the house retort with “Lady Marmalade.” The whole thing is at such a frantic pace that is embodies how the most supercharged aspects of theatre, sex and violence can blur into each other. It’s the kind of thing that sweeps away the uninitiated, and even Christian himself is monetarily dazzled by the spectacle. But more importantly, it becomes his introduction to Satine, with whom he is instantly taken, just like everyone else. But this time, Satine is taken with him, as well, and what we see is not just the blossoming of a doomed romance, but the beginning of the end of the Moulin Rouge itself. For a place like this is not meant to be where one goes to find love. It is a place of cheap thrills and meaningless passion, and the moment when those on either side of that equation see that there is something more to live for, the entire thing falls down like a house of cards.
This is a tale about what it means to pursue a love so true and so impossible that it can never last. For the performers of the Moulin Rouge, what Christian and Satine have between each other is the first time any of them have seen true love. Even though they all know it can’t last for any number of reasons, even though they know it runs counter to everything else the Moulin Rouge stands for, they throw caution to the wind to make sure that Christian and Satine get their chance. By the time we get to the end of the movie, we are rewarded with a moment of romantic purity that is as perfect as it is fleeting. Not long after, our lovers are separated forever, their beloved theatre is boarded up, and the curtain falls, reminding us that the greater the love, the greater the challenge. A moment of truth, indeed.