Flaming low camp
They say the movie musical is dead. Oh sure, Broadway revivals of Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man and Mel Brooks’ new version of The Producers are sold out for months, maybe years. Out in the provinces, people plunk down $50 to $75 for the fifth or sixth go-round of Les Mis, Cats or Miss Saigon. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom says, these same theatergoers won’t shell out a measly eight bucks to see a musical at the nearest cineplex. Personally, I think the problem with movie musicals isn’t that there’s no audience for them; it’s that nobody knows how to make one.
Director Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge illustrates the point. A few years ago, Luhrmann’s dance musical Strictly Ballroom, which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce, was an unexpected charmer, exhilarating and satisfying on that sensual level that all good musicals reach. But now Luhrmann and Pearce have come out with Moulin Rouge, and in their determination to resuscitate the musical they’ve managed only to bury it deeper. It’s as if they had taken the virtues of Strictly Ballroom—the exuberant, stately grace of the dancing, the elegant camera moves, the gradual build of each musical number—and decided to swamp them with its faults. In Moulin Rouge we have fish-eye caricatures, slobbery overacting and a campy overlay of frenzied MTV-style editing.
The story is a pastiche of 19th-century weepers such as Camille and La Bohème crossed with newer, hipper stuff such as West Side Story and Cabaret. Ewan McGregor plays Christian, a young writer smitten with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star entertainer/courtesan at Paris’ famed nightclub, the Moulin Rouge. Satine responds to Christian’s sweetness and the two fall genuinely in love, even as she comes under the thumb of a rich duke (Richard Roxburgh) who is bankrolling the club’s latest production.
The film gets off to a promising start, with a plaintive rendition of “Nature Boy” as Luhrmann’s camera cruises a three-dimensional postcard view of Paris in 1900, swooping through the alleys of Montmartre into the window of a garret where Christian sits mourning his lost love.
But that’s the last time a single song is allowed to monopolize our attention. Once the story kicks in the screen explodes with wild, choppy editing and snippets of songs. Ewan McGregor starts out to sing Elton John’s “Your Song,” but soon snatches of “All You Need Is Love,” “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” “Silly Love Songs,” and about a dozen others come muscling in. Luhrmann thinks singing 20 songs is 20 times better than singing one, but a singer trying to sing that many songs at once isn’t really singing any.
Luhrmann crams the screen with belle époque kitsch—the sets look like a yard sale at a Victorian whorehouse. And he lets nothing develop its own rhythm—a song, a dance, a scene—before scrambling frantically on to his next bright idea, yanking us along in his wake as if we’re making him late for an appointment. He’s like Busby Berkeley with attention deficit disorder, and the effect is like watching one of those TV shows where a bunch of political pundits try to shout each other down.
Luhrmann makes a style of prodding even the good actors in his films into wild or overwrought performances. In William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes obviously didn’t understand a word they were saying, and even Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy hammed it up. In Moulin Rouge it’s more of the same—Jim Broadbent as the club’s impresario and John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec are downright embarrassing. In the midst of all the sweaty leers and grimaces, only Ewan McGregor is able to resist Luhrmann’s over-the-top method. McGregor creates a tiny island of real emotion in Luhrmann’s sea of flaming low camp.
McGregor sings nicely, too; like Jean Louisa Kelly in The Fantastics and Nicole Kidman in her better moments here, he shows that the motion picture industry has the talent to make musicals again. Baz Luhrmann shows that what are missing are the vision and the discipline.