With “Moulin Rouge,” Australian writer-director Baz Luhrmann concludes what he calls his trilogy of “red curtain” movies, pictures which present simple, mythic stories in a deliberately extravagant theatrical style, using some key device to engage viewers in a heightened fashion. In the first, 1992’s “Strictly Ballroom,” the device was dance; in the second, Luhrmann’s modernized version of “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996), it was the sixteenth- century verse form transferred to a gritty contemporary milieu; in the new film, it’s song–bits and pieces of twentieth-century music from show tunes to pop classics, strung together in elaborate patterns and sung by the stars, including Nicole Kidman and Eqan McGregor, in order to draw today’s audiences into the story of a doomed romance between an innocent but talented young man and a beautiful singer-courtesan in 1900 Paris. “They’re audience-participation movies,” he said of the three films. “You’ve either got to be in the game or out of the game, you’ve either got to join in or not.”
Luhrmann spoke about “Moulin Rouge” during a visit to Dallas for a special screening of the film at the USA Film Festival. He was especially pleased to attend the event because, he said, “My films have always been embraced in Dallas.”
The new film is a continuation of the “red curtain” style, Luhrmann said, but also an attempt to revivify the classic Hollywood musical in a new and innovative way. “I grew up in a really tiny place, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and we owned the gas station and a farm, and in fact we had the cinema for a short while,” he explained. As a boy he enjoyed a steady diet of classic films, including the great musicals, and still loves them: “I grew up seeing stories all through music and artifice–that was something I always loved.” In recent years, however, the musical has languished on screen, and so Luhrmann set himself a lofty goal: “How to make a language, a cinematic language, for this moment in this time to tell a story through music.” “Moulin Rouge” is the result of that effort, and Luhrmann describes its use of modern music within a period setting as nothing new. Citing the employment of what was basically a big-band musical style in a picture like 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis,” he said, “The idea of music of one time revealing story and characters as a window into another time is a very old one.”
The first part of the endeavor, however, was creating a narrative that could be reduced to the simplest essentials, almost like a primal myth, and then made vibrant and immediate through the music by which it would be told. Luhrmann decided on what he described as “the maturing story of the Orphean myth–of the idealistic young man going into an underworld, coming to that moment when he realizes there are things you cannot control, not being crushed by that and moving on, having grown internally.” Eventually he determined to set that tale in the French capital at the turn of the century, a decision that led to enormous research on the time and place and to an attempt to tell it in terms of the popular culture of that era. The story of”Moulin Rouge” is, Luhrmann said, “related to the basic, primary popular works of the nineteenth century. It is…a kind of post-modern ‘La boheme’ or a kind of post-modern ‘Traviata.’ It references those structures, but nonetheless it’s one of its own.” The most difficult task in constructing it was not, however, one of research but of simplification: “It was a huge job to take the psychological exposition out of the plot, to make the story almost childlike in its simplicity, frighteningly naive,” Luhrmann explained. But it was essential, he argued, because “without that [simplicity] you can’t have resonance or complexity.” In “Moulin Rouge,” as in the fundamental works of nineteenth-century popular culture (and, Luhrmann argued, in virtually all opera), “the resonance and complexity is found in the execution, not in the revelation of plot,” the outcome of which the audience knows before even entering the created world. The picture, therefore, had to be “a very simple story set in a heightened creative world, and the resonance and the complexity is the musicalization of it.”
It was only after the plot had been pared down to the essentials and relieved of psychological baggage, Luhrmann continued, that the music could be selected to bring it to contemporary life. “Only then do we look at the musicalization of the simple plot,” the director recalled. “Telling that story through music–that’s the step. And although I’m sure the film looked a bit like Baz’s favorite records strung together by a plot, it’s the inversion of that. It’s actually a meticulous, relentless assessment of the musical pieces that will articulate and reveal and illuminate these particular dramatic moments. And that, I can tell you, is labor-intensive.”
Though a few artists eventually decided against allowing their songs to be used in the film for a variety of reasons, most were enthusiastic about the idea and turned over rights for a fraction of the cost they’d ordinarily charge. Luhrmann was also pleased when in Kidman and McGregor he found two stars who could sing so well. It was never an option, he explain, to dub the singing voices as had been done so often in musicals of the fifties and sixties, and the quality of the vocal performances across the board made it a moot point.
“Moulin Rouge,” a Twentieth Century Fox release, is now in wide release across the country after its triumphant premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. What Baz Luhrmann might turn his attention to now that his “red curtain” trilogy is finished remains uncertain, but one can be sure it will be a different and challenging project for a man who–whether you appreciate it or not–has a distinctive cinematic voice.