Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Modern Film Classics: Moulin Rouge!

There’s a famous anecdote of the first-ever performance of Ravel’s Bolero. This classical piece is comprised of the same syncopated rhythms, played over and over again, with increased ferocity and with gradually more instruments, before culminating in a fiery climax, after which the audience had heard the same few bars of music played repeatedly for fifteen minutes. At the end of the performance, an outraged audience member furiously told the composer, Ravel himself, “Sir, you are mad!” To this, the composer responded, “Madam, you have understood the piece!”

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the release of The Blogger’s all-time favourite film, Baz Luhrmann’s mercurial Moulin Rouge!
When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as the opening night film at a pull-out-all-the-stops premiere, the film was like no other film on the market. Boasting dizzying, hyperkinetic editing and soaring camerawork applied to the then-defunct musical film genre, Moulin Rouge! expanded Luhrmann’s dazzling aesthetic vision from previous works and applied it to a big-budget, go-for-broke artistic extravaganza. It was such a bold directorial statement that even its title was so emphatic that it required an exclamation point. Luhrmann didn’t set out to create a landmark, influential film when he embarked on the lengthy twelve-month shoot. Given that it was the third entry in his “Red Curtain” trilogy of films, based on the aesthetic of heightened theatricality applied to film, one should have expected that this film was loaded to excess. In other words, since it’s his magnum opus and signature piece, people were not prepared for their immediate reaction after they saw the film. I still have knock-down, angry debates with people who truly, madly, passionately despise this movie.

This is not to say that Luhrmann was self-indulgent for the sake of getting off on his own artistic fetishes. He knew that he had to obtain funding for the work and drew no less than Nicole Kidman, in one of her most luminous performances, to show off her heretofore unknown musical skills. In the central role, Ewan McGregor is all over this film, almost never off-screen and narrating it. With no original film score for his musical, Luhrmann decided to deconstruct some of the most popular songs of the previous three decades, stuff them into a soundboard, and remixed the hell out of them all. From Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the film’s smash “Lady Marmalade” cover, nothing is too good to ravish and put into the mix. The overall visceral reaction was nothing less than a period piece set in 1900 transported to 2000. One end of the millennium meets the other. The dates are not accidental.

This film’s harshest critics charged that Moulin Rouge! is flawed due to the manic editing pace, the stock characters, and the soundtrack. To criticize the film on these merits is to miss Luhrmann’s point. This film is not meant to be a Bergman-esque character study or an observational slice-of-life drama in the style of Ozu. This is supposed to be an excessive stylistic exercise: the musical on acid. There’s even a sequence where the Australian pop chanteuse Kylie Minogue, herself on the verge of making a glorious return to global pop music recognition at the time, makes an appearance as the Green Fairy during an unforgettable absinthe-induced sequence. Luhrmann's musical does not take after the style of grand old Hollywood show horses like Singin’ in the Rain. Rather, the modern MTV music video pace that underlines the film cleverly masquerades Lurhmann’s true inspiration: the Bollywood musical. 

This is the key to understanding Moulin Rouge! The musical film may have gone of fashion in Western filmmaking, but in India, they are immortal and draw millions to the theatres annually. The genre is an institution, but it is not a museum. Consider that the film’s climactic musical finale takes place in a Bollywood musical setting, complete with remixed Indian dance beats. Also consider that Kidman’s character lives in an apartment suite housed in a building whose entire exterior façade is a jeweled elephant. Lurhmann brilliantly makes this point but, unfortunately, some critics and audiences simply missed it. That elephant is the whole key to the film’s aesthetic, hiding in plain sight.

Moulin Rouge! may have been prevented from attaining blockbuster film status in North America, despite its moderate financial success (although it made five times more globally, meaning that once again overseas audiences are ahead of Americans), because its spirit countered hip film connoisseurs' archenemy, filtered through too many Tarantino Pulp Fiction clones: sincerity. As renegade as the soundtrack was when it was released, the songs it deconstructs are unabashedly romantic, without qualification. This is a movie where Ewan McGregor belts out “Your Song” while dancing on a small-scale Eiffel Tower and swinging an umbrella like Gene Kelly, with dry ice obscuring the ground and a resplendent Nicole Kidman twirling around and falling in love with him. The film’s one original song, a leftover that was not used in Luhrmann’s previous outrageous movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, is the film’s beating heart. To those of us who love this film, it is still one of the great romantic anthems of our time.

In fact, one of the Blogger’s friends actually used the song as the first dance at his wedding a few years after Moulin Rouge! was released.

Ten years later, the effect of the film has been felt throughout the industry. The film’s success (global grosses total a quarter of a billion dollars and countless millions in DVD sales) birthed a renaissance of film musicals starring some of our most noted actors. These titles include Mamma Mia! (another musical with an exclamation point that first appeared on Broadway in the same year, coincidence?), Dreamgirls, Hairspray and the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2002, Chicago. Moulin Rouge! itself received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and won two, and received an astonishing five dozen other industry awards (not including countless other nominations). Despite the unfortunate financial disaster of such other film musicals released in the decade since, such as The Producers, Nine and the underrated Rent, Hollywood is no longer averse to the genre. These films attract top talent and are considered artistically risky. If nothing else, these projects arouse curiosity and a burning question as to whether, and not without a smidgen of schadenfreude, the star can sing. Michelle Pfeiffer in Hairspray, yes. Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! ... well, let's not go there. Two notable musicals which shall be made into films in the next few years are Wicked and the unstoppable Les Misérables. This is perhaps the film’s lasting legacy: come what may, it revitalized the musical film genre’s artistic and financial viability and proved it could be modernized and culturally relevant again.

Above all, the film’s tagline may be its lasting coda to the downtrodden in time of need, used in the film’s incorporation of “Nature Boy”:

"The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love, and to be loved in return.”