reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, May 16, 2001
Few movies these days are better than their trailers or TV commercials. Fortunately, "Moulin Rouge," Baz Luhrmann's peculiar but ambitious and entertaining musical, is funnier and less claustrophobic than its rather alarming ads. While a few people walked out during the screening of the Nicole Kidman - Ewan McGregor songfest, afterwards many women were gushing over it. One man told his (male) date, "That was the best movie I ever saw." And among guys with female dates, I overheard a lot of them saying things like, "Wow, that wasn't anywhere near as bad as I'd figured."
In last week's "A Knight's Tale," medieval peasants at a jousting match in 1356 sang along to Queen's 1978 hit "We Will Rock You." This week, an innocent young Scotsman (played by McGregor, who portrayed the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in "The Phantom Menace") moves to Paris' Montmartre red light district in 1899 and holes up in the proverbial garret to write love poems.
His absinthe-drinking bohemian neighbors, including dwarf painter Toulouse-Lautrec, recruit him to help compose a song for a show they are putting on at the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. While the comic Frenchmen cacophonously debate how to phrase a line about the glories of mountains, our hero suddenly belts out in a gorgeous tenor the perfect contribution: Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The hills are alive with the sound of music."
Although the impact of the anachronistic Classic Rock in "A Knight's Tale" was satirical, in "Moulin Rouge" the effect of the 19th Century characters performing Broadway, Top 40, and New Wave numbers is delirious.
McGregor's male ingénue has a remarkable, if never explained, gift. He can sing all the hit songs of the upcoming 20th Century. And he believes every word of them. Falling madly in love with the Moulin Rouge's star can-can dancer, played by Nicole Kidman (best known for her many years in the role of Mrs. Tom Cruise), McGregor sincerely informs her that, "All you need is love," "Love is a many splendored thing," "Love is like oxygen," and "I will alwaaaaaays love you." (Amidst all the recycling of old tunes, they also duet on one worthy new love song, "Come What May.")
The high-kicking courtesan finds McGregor's knack, well, lovable, but she has agreed to sell herself to an elderly Duke in return for his financing her in a career on the legitimate stage. Her coughing spells, though, forebode an even more tragic fate.
Intentionally predictable, the melodramatic plot and archetypal characters are largely drawn from Jacques Offenbach's burlesque opera "Orpheus in the Underworld" (famous for its can-can) and Giacomo Puccini's tragic opera "La Boheme" (which Luhrmann produced at the Sydney Opera House).
Yes, the two movie stars really do sing, and - helped along by some singing-in-the-shower-style echo effects - they do a mighty fine job of it. The instrumental sides of the countless snippets of songs don't fare as well, though. The movie uses strings too often on tunes written for electric guitars. And, at least in the theatre where I saw it, there wasn't enough bass to justify all the frenzied dancing.
The fin de siecle mood suffusing the artists of Europe in 1899 was one of too-muchness, a decadent glut of the cultural glories of the 19th Century overlapping with the fast-arriving technological novelties of the 20th Century. Australian prodigy Luhrmann (who directed Leonardo DiCaprio in his "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" extravaganza) cleverly updates for a modern audience that feeling of end-of-the-century overload by drenching his musical in the most teeming art form of the 20th Century, the pop song, combined with the audio and visual digital detailing of the 21st Century.
Luhrmann then piles on frantic production numbers, swooping camera work, lurid makeup for supporting characters (but not for his two stars, who look fabulous), an opulent production design by his wife Catherine Martin, and a grab bag of goofy gimmicks (tenor Placido Domingo, for instance, has a singing cameo as, literally, the Man in the Moon).
By making his art as artificial as possible, Luhrmann attempts to disarm the standard objection to movie musicals that has become widespread since Bob Dylan made "authenticity" the yardstick for evaluating music: "I hate musicals because there's always this dude walking down the street and he starts singing and then like a hundred violins come out of nowhere. Man, that's so phony!" (Personally, I've never understood this criticism, since it implies a touching faith in the non-phoniness of the rest of Hollywood's output.)
Also, much of the decline in the popularity of musicals among the general public stems from Broadway becoming more of a gay ghetto. Gay liberation has made heterosexuals more aware of how many male homosexuals are infatuated with the musical theatre. (Yes, it's a stereotype, but, admit it, you were surprised when I mentioned earlier that Luhrmann has a wife). As Broadway has come increasingly out of the closet, heterosexual men have increasingly shunned it. Choreography, for example, used to attract he-men such as Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly, but few straight guys enter the field anymore.
Oddly enough for a man with two young kids, Colombian-born chameleon John Leguizamo is getting typecast in roles requiring a lisp. Here, his silly Toulouse-Lautrec pronounces the name of the home of the Matterhorn as "Thwitherwand." In reality, the heterosexual and hard-working crippled artist's lisp was another one of the genetic defects he inherited from his aristocratic parents, who were first cousins. Tragically, Toulouse-Lautrec self-medicated his abundant physical and psychological pain with alcohol and died in 1901 at age 36.
Other than Leguizamo, however, Luhrmann keeps the "Gay Paree" stuff to a minimum. Kidman and McGregor are nearly Platonic ideals of their respective sexes. Hollywood associates femininity with fair skin. Note how leading ladies are almost always paler than their love interests. This is probably because women actually are on average 10% lighter in color than their brothers (as measured on the inside of the upper arm). No one in the history of movies has ever been fairer-skinned than the ethereal Kidman.
Besides his natural manliness, McGregor's Scottish accent keeps his character from seeming affected or campy. No dialect better conveys plainspoken honesty. His Scottish burr helps make his version of "Your Song" possibly even better than Elton John's classic rendition.
"Moulin Rouge" is rated PG-13 for heavy sexual innuendo and about 200 shots of can-can dancers lifting their skirts to show off their garters.