For better or worse, some directors shoot for the stars. Their efforts may result in colossal misfires, but they could also result in a truly stellar experience. With 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann certainly ended up with the latter as the movie not only shoots for the stars, but manages to get there.
The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a courtesan and singer at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in the Montmartre district in Paris, and Ewan McGregor as Christian, a would-be poet who falls desperately in love with her. With a script written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, Moulin Rouge! is an astounding and pulse-pounding reinvention of the musical. The majority of the songs in the film are well known pop numbers and virtually the entire thing is conducted at such a frenetic pace that the audience never gets the chance to breathe. It features medley after medley that not only end up with many in the audience singing along, but also manage to perfectly express the hopes, desires, and fears of the characters.
The task of explaining exactly what one is in for should they watch a film like Moulin Rouge! isn’t quite the easiest of things. It is an unrelenting, old-time love story. Christian and Satine are meant to be, they are destined to be, they are a couple who will fight for their love no matter what, and yet it is clear from early on that the film will not truly have a happy ending. They will fight for their love even through each other’s moments of doubt and the wishes of The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who is funding the play Christian is writing and in which Satine is starring, but they will never be able to escape the inevitable.
That, of course, tells you what the story is, but it doesn’t tell you what the movie is like. It is, quite literally, bright and sparkling, full of quick cuts, momentary bursts of song, and the hyperactive pace of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in which much of the film takes place. One moment the stars will be singing The Beatles, the next U2, and then finally they’ll be completely silenced when the Unconscious Argentinean (Jacek Koman) has another bout of narcolepsy and falls flat on his face.
The film also stars John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, who is the impetus for almost everything that takes place. It is Lautrec who convinces the English Christian to embrace the turn of the century Bohemian ideals that abounded in the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and it is Lautrec who puts forth Christian to write the play in which Satine is to star. It may be Lautrec who best embodies the entire production – he experiences the highest highs of the other characters and the lowest lows, and Leguizamo carries off the role with all the humor and seriousness it requires.
The films supporting characters go far beyond Leguizamo’s Toulouse-Lautrec, Roxburgh’s Duke, and Koman’s Argentinean however. Jim Broadbent turns in a truly outstanding performance as Harold Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge and the man who hopes to put on Christian’s show, “Spectacular Spectacular,” with the Duke’s money.
Moulin Rouge! is, unquestionably, a love it or hate it experience. It is a musical like few others, but something clearly in the Baz Luhrmann oeuvre. Luhrmann also brought us the Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo + Juliet (1996) which places the two star-crossed lovers in the modern day but keeping the original language. He is, in short, a visionary director. His vision may not be for everyone, but Luhrmann’s films with their distinctive visual style are certainly something which everyone ought to experience at least once. It is full of nods to not just pop music and the magic of love, but also has more than a few nods to Bollywood.
Happily, the newly released Blu-ray of the film almost perfectly captures the color, sound, and wonder of the film. Moulin Rouge!‘s visuals sport more than one look, from old-time black and white grain to that of modern-day high-gloss Hollywood, and all of them look great on the disc. The colors are incredibly rich, the diamonds sparkle beautifully, The Green Fairy floats in mesmerizing fashion, and the level of detail is high. It is an incredibly faithful representation of the theatrical release both in terms of the visuals and the soundtrack. This latter aspect is done with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which has both the bass and all-encompassing sound one would expect to get were they actually at a nightclub. It is a clean, crisp audio track and it helps make the experience everything it should be.
Having been released multiple times previously on DVD, the new Blu-ray still manages to have some new bonus items beyond just Luhrmann’s explanation of what went into creating the Blu-ray. There is a picture-in-picture commentary mode with Luhrmann, Pearce, Catherine Martin (production designer, costume designer, and associate producer), and Donald McAlpine (cinematographer). Beyond the interviews, the picture-in-picture track contains extra footage and stills. There is also a new behind the scenes featurette, “A Creative Adventure,” as well as a previously released making of piece and individual featurettes on specific aspects of how the film got put together (“The Stars, “The Writers,” “The Design,” “The Dance,” “The Music,” and “The Cutting Room”). One of the more interesting extras the disc contains is a look at an alternate opening of the film in which Christian sings Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son.”
In short, Moulin Rouge! is spectacular, spectacular. It is a love story, it is a romance, it is a tragedy, and a comedy. It has just about anything anyone would ever go to the movies to see and it packages it all around beautiful visuals, a fast pace, and great songs. Luhrmann may not succeed in every endeavor he has ever ventured into, but he does so here and he does so marvelously.