|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 14 January 2003|
Wow. Director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann’s fabulous 2001 musical "Moulin Rouge" has now reached DVD in an extras-laden two-disc set. The added goodies are great, but the big attraction here is still the movie itself, just as enveloping in the home environment as in the theatre. "Moulin Rouge" is almost literally intoxicating in its heady rush of beautifully-reproduced colors, imagery and pop music, delivered with soaring delight by a dazzling cast.
Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce set the tone for us even before the 20th Century Fox logo has a chance to appear. A conductor wildly leads an orchestra in the Fox studio theme as red curtains part behind him to reveal a movie screen. We push in on a series of antique images of Paris at the end of the 19th century, then meet bereft young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), who tearfully tells us that Satine (Nicole Kidman), the woman he loves, is dead. Dispensing this information up front is a wise move, since otherwise the downshift to tragedy from the exuberant farce of the first few acts might seem more a nasty trick than an inevitable component of a story based (loosely, to be sure) on sources like the Orpheus myth, "La Boheme," "La Traviata" and "Cabaret." (The tone of the film is discussed extensively in the supplemental material by Luhrmann, Pearce and their colleagues.) We are then whisked back in time to one year earlier, as Christian first arrives in Montmartre from England, eager to join the bohemian movement that celebrates truth, beauty, freedom and love above all else. Unfortunately, Christian has no idea of how to find his spiritual comrades – until, as he says brightly, "an unconscious Argentinian dropped through my ceiling." Cut to the incident. It seems that Christian’s upstairs neighbor is artist Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), who is trying to put together a musical theatre piece that will impress Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the proprietor of the Moulin Rouge nightclub/brothel. Christian’s suggestions make a hit with Toulouse-Lautrec and his friends, who decide that the writer should meet with Moulin Rouge headliner and top courtesan Satine to persuade her that they’re the team to create the venue’s next hit. However, Satine is scheduled to seduce the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who Zidler hopes will finance a renovation of the theatre. Inevitably, Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke, while Christian imagines Satine is really falling for him and readily surrenders his own heart. By the time everyone – except the Duke – knows what’s what, it’s too late. Christian is busy writing a show for the Moulin Rouge that hilariously and tragically copies his own backstage story, while no one except Zidler knows that Satine’s little cough is a harbinger of something dire.
Everywhere the eye turns in virtually any given frame of "Moulin Rouge," there’s too much to take in on a single viewing. Go ahead, use the freeze-frame function – your jaw will still drop. Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and cinematographer Don McAlpine pack the shots so full of whirling hues, shapes and spirited performers that it almost literally is enough to knock you backwards.
For a prime example, check out Chapters 4 and 5, as Christian enters the Moulin Rouge for the first time. Seeing the Moulin Rouge dancers conquer the floor to the strains of "Lady Marmalade" as Zidler invites us, his patrons, into the establishment is the modern version of the effect a tamer version of the pitch would have had on a less spectacle-jaded audience. It didn’t take as much to blow away the patrons of the original Moulin Rouge, but Luhrmann sees to it that we modern types are left just as awestruck.
However, an act of even greater filmmaking virtuosity on the part of Luhrmann and his co-writer Pearce is the way they have reimagined familiar songs for new emotional impact. Sting’s "Roxanne" is belted out in Chapter 23 as a ferocious indictment accompanied by a wild tango, complete with footstamps that hit the floor with the impact of detonating bombs. Satine declares her philosophy and her price by mingling "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend" and its more recent spiritual heir, "Material Girl," in Chapter 6, which shows off the disc’s precision in color reproduction – Kidman is made virtually black (well, steel blue) and white by the lighting – except for her dark pink lips, so that her appearance is as startling as the juxtaposed lyrics. Broadbent and Roxburgh’s insane duet on Madonna’s "Like a Virgin" in Chapter 19 may make it impossible for you to ever hear the old version in the same way again. The Chapter 14 love song, entitled "Elephant Love Medley" on the liner notes, makes its point about just how exuberant and shameless Christian is in courting Satine by somehow weaving together lyrical/musical snatches of – get ready for a list – "All You Need Is Love," "I Was Made for Lovin’ You," "One More Night," "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Don’t Leave Me This Way," "Up Where We Belong," "Heroes" and "I Will Always Love You," which Satine tries to rebut with "Silly Love Songs."
Finally, at the risk of exposing my limitations as a reviewer, I fear that I cannot precisely convey what happens in Chapter 9, when McGregor’s Christian starts spouting Bernie Taupin’s lyrics to "Your Song" verbally in speech, then is swept up in Elton John’s music. Luhrmann and McGregor do what musicals are supposed to do (but usually don’t) – they make us believe that Christian is so far gone in ecstatic adoration that singing is the only means of expression that will truly convey his feelings. More, the rendition, coupled with the visuals – Luhrmann whirls the besotted couple off the roof into an adjoining cloudbank – reminds us how adroit and warm "Your Song" really is, after 30 years of repetition have threatened to turn it into audio wallpaper.
Kidman and McGregor turn out to have lovely voices. Kidman’s is high and sweet, while McGregor has a full-out, stage-musical-ready set of pipes that make the score worth listening to in its own right. According to Luhrmann’s comments in the supplement, the performers really sing every note, and even though the synch is a bit iffy in places (more noticeably than in the theatrical version) on some songs, the overall effect is still stunning.
The fire and energy of the supporting cast is outstanding, with Broadbent a veritable ginger hurricane of theatrical bombast and showmanship. Leguizamo is weirdly elfin as Toulouse-Lautrec, while Roxburgh, in a just about perfect performance, lets himself look completely silly and consequently is quite terrifying in the latter sections as the demonically possessive Duke. Jacek Korman has fearless dignity and comedic presence as the narcoleptic Argentinian, who unleashes a spine-shivering vocal belt on "Roxanne."
The DTS sound mix on the DVD is nothing short of heroic. A common flaw in many DVD soundtracks is that the center dialogue channel tends to sink beneath effects and music in the mains and rears. Here, dialogue and song vocals reside in the center, powerfully holding their own even when surrounded by swelling orchestrations. In Chapter 3, as Christian "invents" the opening lines to "The Sound of Music," the score rises as though Julie Andrews is about to start spinning around a hillside, but the mix brings up McGregor in the center right along with the music in mains and rears. In Chapter 13, again, we seem to be amid a full orchestra situated in the mains and rears, yet Kidman’s vocal rendition of "One Day I’ll Fly Away" comes through the center with beautiful clarity. Some of the best surround effects are saved for near the end – in Chapter 33, we seem to be in the middle of the stage during a huge production number, with the chorus and musicians all around us.
The print transfer is likewise impressive. "Moulin Rouge" is full of twinkling lights and sparkling fabrics, but even in Chapter 14, which has fireworks, stars gleaming in the sky and shimmering curtains (not to mention Kidman and McGregor), the images never fragment or bleed. Colors are so vivid that the effect is almost like seeing them under a blacklight, starting with a vivid intro to the costumes of the Moulin Rouge girls in Chapter 2.
The supplements are fun, although audio and video quality, while acceptable, are not anything like the main feature. Disc 1 of the two-disc set contains the film itself, which has the options of commentary by the Luhrmann/Pearce writing team and a separate commentary by visual creative leaders Luhrmann, Martin and McAlpine. The feature also has the option of "Behind the Red Curtain," which is like a New Line Infinifilm or the "white rabbit" track on "The Matrix." A green fairy periodically shows up in the left side of the screen – when she does, a click on "Enter" will play a featurette. Most of these relate to design, though there are some discussions of story structure. Sound is audible but low on these sections – the shift from the main feature to the supplement and back creates a volume discrepancy that is a bit jarring.
The second disc has an entertaining (if not exactly unusual) HBO "making-of" featurette, a pair of music videos, one the barn-burning rendition by Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya and Li’l Kim of "Lady Marmalade" and the other the love ballad "Come What May," which has appealing imagery despite a badly-judged addition of a techno dance beat where it doesn’t belong. The live version of "Lady Marmalade" from the MTV Awards is also included. Interviews with Kidman, McGregor, Broadbent, Leguizamo and Roxburgh are engaging and Luhrmann and Pearce appear on camera for what seems like a shorter version of their commentary. There are design and publicity galleries, extended versions of four production numbers and a nifty feature that gives a choice of four camera angles on three of the big dance sequences – the can-can, the "Roxanne" tango and the climax. (The camera angles are selected with your remote’s number keys, rather than the usual arrows.) Reportedly, there are Easter Eggs as well – happy hunting.
"Moulin Rouge" persuasively makes the case that some songs work better in a narrative context and some narratives demand song rather than speech. In short, "Moulin Rouge" is a working demonstration of why musicals exist. There may not be much else to say except, once again, wow.