“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” is the mantra of the musical extravaganza Moulin Rouge! The excessively bohemian theme of this masterpiece is “freedom, beauty, truth, and love” –some very idealistic motifs indeed. Australian film director Baz Luhrman has made it his mission to make the classic tales of generations past accessible to modern audiences. For instance, his other love child Romeo + Juliet brought new life to the most famous tragedy of all time by uprooting the original Shakespearean script and planting it in the twentieth century, a current setting making it much easier to understand. On the other hand, Moulin Rouge! does just the opposite; instead Luhrman brings the twenty-first century to the world of the 1900s. Cabaret had been all the rave in the past but to sell it successfully to the new wave was quite a feat. He accomplished this through excessive eye candy, a compelling story with a universal theme, and incorporating mainstream music into a turn of the century film, making it all the more relatable to a hundred-years-removed audience. In short, Moulin Rouge! made an unpopular notion glamorous.
Luhrman manipulated young viewers using ornate costumes, the potential for scandal, and the undeniable pull of Paris with the flourish of showmanship. Moulin Rouge! showcased the ancestor of vaudeville through rich costumes such as lingerie, bedazzled leotards, and blood red satin gowns designed to bribe young audiences in the face of minimalistic trends. Glorifying an outrageous notion like the “Palace of Women” or “Le Premier Palais des Femmes” –a name the brothel earned in its hay day– certainly does not seem like such a radical idea next to the likes of Pretty Woman, released just eleven years prior, yet Moulin Rouge! achieves more scandal. The circus inspired atmosphere creates a visual orgy of color and flesh that assaults the audience. This visually erotic experience coupled with the advantageous backdrop of Paris, one of the most risqué cities in the world, is a recipe for success in capturing the modern crowd.
However, the draw does not end with the spectacle of burlesque, it is merely the foundation for the universally touching story of an all too familiar pair of star-crossed lovers made more accessible through comic relief and exaggeration. Through parallel stories both used as the premise itself and the redundant yet amusing ‘show within a show’ tact, the tale of an impoverished writer/sitar player (respectively) who falls head over heels for a courtesan is told. Unfortunately this woman is in fact coveted by a powerful, wealthy duke, creating the conflict. Now a love triangle may be tried and true, but Moulin Rouge! takes it to a new level with editing cuts that are reminiscent of music videos, no doubt ringing a bell with its target MTV audience. The pendulum mood swings that accompany that artistic style lend a comic hand to such stirring emotions such as unrequited love, jealousy, and suffering. Amidst a sappy ballad you see both internal war and an operatic moon with a connoisseur mustache, effectively allowing the audience to enjoy heart-wrenching subjects while still treading deep waters.
The instrument in the telling of this bittersweet romance is music and working contemporary tunes into the show was a lure for an equally contemporary public. The soundtrack consists of hits ranging from Sir Elton John’s “Your Song” to grungy Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the songs so liberally woven together as to be almost unrecognizable. Moulin Rouge! took mainstream music through the rabbit hole, producing Bollywood and opera influenced versions, and the masses welcomed it with open arms, quite the triumph since it not only served as bait but also broadened the horizons of its patrons. The proof is in the statistics: the album went double platinum due to its superb workmanship.
To summarize, Luhrman created a one hour and thirty minute music video with can-can, striptease, theatricality, a sob-worthy plot, and a soundtrack that is to die for. What better way to entrance the MTV generation? Moulin Rouge! took a reluctant public and brow beat them into adoring a movie about another old tragic love story.