Credit for the title of this blog series goes to my Dad!
I’ve been wanting to do a blog series about movie musicals for months. The only reason I haven’t done this for all of those is about the giant elephant in the room, which is Moulin Rouge! My blog posts are going to go through all of the AFI Top 25 Movie Musicals and do a bit of a retrospective review of each. I’d also like to go from #25 to #1, because I think that’s more interesting. Moulin Rouge! is #25 on the list. It is also the movie that, if pressed, I would name as my least favorite movie for a good number of years.
Before you immediately dismiss these blog posts and name me a fraud, I only saw Moulin Rouge! once when I was about 16-17. Here were my major issues with the movie.
- Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman didn’t have enough chemistry for me to believably want them to be in love.
- I didn’t dig the modern soundtrack / jukebox musical over the historical backdrop. I wanted the old-fashioned music.
- It was all style and zero substance.
- (perhaps the most important thing) I thought it was far too overhyped and it didn’t live up to other movies I had seen in the past.
However, in my interest of making this a fair list, I’m revisiting this movie. Perhaps I will like it. Perhaps not. I do think, before watching it again, that it is an interesting movie at the very least, so I’m hoping for the best.
Photo from when I was at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, hey.
The film centers around Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer, who gets caught up with a troupe of performers seeking to put on a play at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Along the way he falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan and star, who is also desired by a wealthy Duke who seeks her for himself. Melodrama ensues.
Having watched this again, I can safely say that this is an incredibly frustrating experience, purely because I feel like it is chock full of things I enjoy in films. I love visually stunning movies, and there’s no denying that Moulin Rouge is a very stylish film. I love a good romantic movie, and I also love musicals (hence this blog series). I like movies that are a bit strange and offbeat. By all accounts I should love Moulin Rouge.
By rewatch I can safely say that it’s a missed opportunity. There’s a lot to like, but specifically the visuals are very strong. Like him or not, Baz Luhrmann is a very striking visual director, so for the most part this is a visual treat. However, none of it seems to reinforce the story or the characters. An early example is how the film opens as a black and white silent film. Since this film is nothing if not pastiche, I’m expecting a Wizard of Oz treatment – breaking into color when he enters the Moulin Rouge. It’s a bit on the nose, but what about this film isn’t on the nose? However, it’s immediately undercut by wild zooms, color being brought in early, etc. What may have worked is if, when the troupe of performers who burst into his apartment, the black and white aesthetic slowly fades, as they bring color and sound into the film. It would make the black and white filming feel meaningful rather than just something that Baz Luhrmann did just because.
I still don’t think that Christian and Satine’s chemistry is anything special. It’s not bad, but I certainly don’t feel like rooting for them to get together. Which is another missed opportunity – while this film is hyper-stylized and over the top, having a real relationship to ground it would be welcome. I’ve seen this excused as “Christian is in love with being in love, so it doesn’t matter if they have chemistry” but I’m not sure I buy that the core of the melodrama is intentionally false. I certainly believe that Christian is enamored with the idea of falling in love, but I don’t think the film criticizes that much. It often feels like it’s simultaneously serious about its story and satirizing it – both melodrama and postmodernism. Sometimes this works. I don’t think this necessarily works here.
As for the music, again sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think modern music can work well in a historical setting – I wouldn’t be one of the multitude of people who loves Hamilton if I didn’t think that worked. However, again, I think it needs to have purpose. Hamilton is a perfect example because hip hop as a form works perfectly to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton. Each of the characters raps a bit differently and it works to tell you things about each character unconsciously. It feels meaningful, and the music is so baked into Hamilton’s DNA that separating Hamilton from hip hop would be impossible. However, too often the music in Moulin Rouge feels like an exercise in recognizing music rather than actually being purposed meaningfully. I think it could have been done well, but I’m not sure how much I actually believe any of it was put in with any thought.
I think that’s maybe my biggest complaint. I don’t know if I would argue that it’s style over substance anymore, and I’m not sure that’s a complaint I’d like to make – visual style is as important as any dialogue or writing. However, I would say that the style and substance doesn’t match up, and that the style isn’t done in service of the substance. Visually striking films should ideally be created to serve the plot or characters. One of my favorite films of all time, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is visually striking but the visuals reflect the story. That’s not exactly the case with Moulin Rouge.
That said, while I don’t think it’s necessarily a successful movie, I admire it’s ambition, I admire how different it is, and I admire it’s visual direction. Which is the most frustrating thing – I want to love this movie but I just can’t. It’s a movie that has so much opportunity to be interesting, to do interesting things, and is ultimately not successful at it. It’s not my least favorite movie, but it’s one of the biggest missed opportunities I believe I have ever seen.
Musical Number Highlights:
Lady Marmalade/Zidler’s Rap (Can Can)/Smells Like Teen Spirit – While this number outstays its welcome (like most of this movie – it’s a good 20-30 minutes too long), it’s the most visually striking and has a great energy to it. It works well.
The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular)” – It’s the Infernal Galop in Orpheus in the Underworld (Can-Can) but this segment is a lot of fun.
Elephant Love Medley – Again, outstays its welcome, but I love the initial interplay of Christian’s romanticism and Satine being practical. I wish that tension (love vs ‘I need to make a living’) would last further in the film.
El Tango de Roxanne – It’s a very transformative use of The Police’s Roxanne but it’s rightfully very memorable.
Worth Watching? Yes. I’d say that you should give it a viewing if you haven’t already. While Moulin Rouge is enormously flawed, it is still ambitious and interesting.
Does it deserve its place on the AFI Movie Musicals list? A tentative yes? I think giving it #25 is a pretty solid spot. It’s recognizing Moulin Rouge’s ambition and striking visuals without putting it higher against stiff competition. I do wonder, had this list been made later, if Moulin Rouge would get any recognition, but I appreciate that this list kept in a relatively recent film and recognized its innovation.