An art form that predates even the earliest cinema, the musical has grown into one of the most beloved genres of the stage and screen. Evolving from turn of the century vaudeville to today’s elaborate productions the musical has adapted to the trends of film and theater, with each generation creating its own unique variation. After the genre’s cinematic heyday in the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, the musical fell out of fashion with movie goers and the few musical films that were released received mixed reviews at best. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the genre experienced a renaissance as studios began releasing musicals with a modern flair. One of the most successful and still one of the most unique examples of this trend is the 2001 hit movie musical Moulin Rouge. Part music video and part Bollywood extravaganza, Moulin Rouge is more than just a movie musical; it is a fusion of song, dance, and emotion the likes of which moviegoers have not seen before or since.
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The story begins in 1890’s Paris, as impoverished writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) reflects upon his tragic affair with his muse, Satine (Nicole Kidman). The film then flashes back to his youth when he joined the city’s bohemian community and pitched his first play to the producers of the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret and club. While at the Moulin Rouge he meets and is instantly entranced by sultry singer and courtesan Satine, who mistakes him for one of the club’s wealthy patrons. In spite of his poverty and her profession, the two are immediately drawn to one another and embark upon a passionate romance. Their happiness is soon threatened, however, when her latest patron (Richard Roxburgh) becomes dangerously possessive.
While many more musical films have been released since Moulin Rouge’s debut, the film continues to stand out for its unique fusion of the modern and classic. The historical setting and plot, which borrows heavily from such stage staples as La Boheme and Camille, allows the film to pay tribute to past productions even in the midst of its extravaganza of modern music samples and cutting edge cinematography. These elements allow viewers to ease into the film’s surreal world and provides much needed grounding for the otherwise fantastic proceedings. The film uses the familiar technique of telling its story through song, with characters singing in both the central plot and the show-within-a-show that the characters perform. The film puts its own twist on this genre trope, however, by utilizing an eclectic collection of tunes that range from such artists as Nat King Cole, to the Beatles, to Nirvana and everything in between. The inclusion of beloved hits allows viewers to further invest in the story though songs that they already know and love, and lends a new twist on many of these classic songs by placing them within a new context. The visuals are also nothing short of stunning, with costumes and sets that virtually leap off of the screen. The film’s approach, while innovative, does have its drawbacks, however, as the constant shift from one musical genre to another can prove a jarring experience for viewers. Similarly, while the familiar plot does soften viewers’ journey through the changing songs and constant film cuts, it leaves little room for surprises. While Moulin Rouge may not be a film for every viewer, it is a cinematic experience that will linger long after the cast has sung their final note.
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This unique vision would not have become the groundbreaking hit that it is without its stellar cast. Jim Broadbent is a comic delight as the club’s blustery manager, Harold. John Lequizamo lends plenty of impish fun to his portrayal of real-life painter Toulouse Lautrec. Richard Roxburgh captures the perfect balance between malicious and pathetic in his role as the villainous Duke. Ewan McGregor is swoon-worthy in his role as the idealistic Christian and brings a romantic innocence to his role that makes him an ideal foil to Kidman’s worldly courtesan. Nicole Kidman infuses Satine with a world-weariness and vulnerability that provides vital insight into the real woman behind her vampish persona. Together Kidman and McGregor share a chemistry that makes this tale of star-crossed love soar.
At once a millennial musical and an homage to the classics, Moulin Rouge is a thrill ride for the eyes and ears and a celebration of the heart. While its unusual approach remains polarizing, the film reinvigorated the musical with an energy and originality that other movie musicals have imitated but have never replicated. Few films can paint the town red quite like Moulin Rouge.
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