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Various Artists - "Moulin Rouge" Soundtrack  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Abbie Bernstein   
Tuesday, 08 May 2001

Various Artists,
20th Century Fox Film Corp./Interscope, 2001
| Performance 10 | Sound 8 |

So far, Moulin Rouge is the best movie of 2001, breathing new life into the film musical genre with its visual dazzle and its playful yet heartfelt conviction that there are moments when the best way for characters to express themselves is by bursting into song. It doesn’t hurt that the movie also has boasts killer score. Its soundtrack album is an eclectic mix of reconceived versions of pop and show standards, some combined together into medleys, and a couple of new numbers written expressly for the movie.


Onscreen, the characters sing most of the music, while a few choice numbers play behind them. On the Moulin Rouge soundtrack album, the presentation is obviously more equal – all of the songs get the same focus, although they have very different sounds. Indeed, few compilation albums – even those derived from movies – have such diverse contents. Most of the songs here don’t share performers, composers or even producers, although the film’s producer/director/co-producer Baz Luhrmann is listed as the overall producer for the album.

Track One, "Nature Boy," doesn’t exist in quite this form in the film, where it’s sung tentatively by John Leguizamo’s Toulouse-Lautrec. On the album, the ‘40s standard is given an ominous, Gothic brooding orchestral treatment, with David Bowie providing the haunted vocals. This track, produced by BLAM, Josh G. Abrahams and Craig Armstrong, provides fair warning that the listener will have to play volume jockey: Ewan McGregor as the film’s romantic hero Christian, mournfully whispers the spoken introduction so softly that the understandable temptation is to turn the sound up. By all means, touch that dial, but turn it back down again, or your speakers may blow themselves across the room with the symphonic blast that ends the number.

Track Two will likely be the most familiar song on the album to radio listeners and MTV watchers. This is the cover of "Lady Marmalade" (a huge ‘70s hit for Patti LaBelle) by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink, produced by Missy Elliott, which serves in the film as what’s playing in the Moulin Rouge nightclub as the employees cross the stage. With a synth sounding positively dangerous in the rears, the singers array themselves through the mains, forming an alliance with the heavy bass guitar in this taunting ode to the ethos of those who sell sex. The harmonies are gorgeous and tight, with a wail here and a groan there rising above the now-trilled, now-growled group sound. Lil’ Kim’s rap commentary threads through the catchy "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi" chorus (which translates loosely as, "Would you like to sleep with me?"). The number has a huge, full sound, with a compulsively rhythmic beat, while the vocals both seduce and menace. When Lil’ Kim comments on "Four bad-ass chicks from the Moulin Rouge," we don’t doubt their collective toughness.

"Because We Can" on Track Three is a techno-pop rave with slamming, intimidating percussion, horns and loops that lay down a sonic wall that prevents us from escaping, even as we’re disoriented by the hectic pace and the volume. This number, produced and performed by Fatboy Slim (although that’s actor Jim Broadbent we hear on the ferocious vocals, recreating his film role as the Moulin Rouge impresario), is warehouse-filling loud, just the thing to play over and over for nonstop dancing.

Track Four is billed as "Sparkling Diamonds," which consists primarily of the ‘50s standard "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend," with a little helping of "Material Girl." In the film, the number is performed by Nicole Kidman’s courtesan Satine as she makes her head-turning entrance. Don’t worry about the scratchiness on the first line of the song – it’s intentional, there to underscore the difference between the old-fashioned sentiment it expresses and the pragmatic sensibilities embodied by the cleanly-recorded rest of the song. Kidman has a lovely, high alluring singing voice and sells the number in savvy style, finding the humor in the lyrics even as she beckons her audience to shower her with jewels. The album version (produced by BLAM, Abrahams, Armstrong and Marius DeVries) is conceived musically as a big band piece with horns going wild over hot strings and firm drums; it wouldn’t sound out of place as an arrangement on an album actually produced in the ‘50s.

Track Five, a new cover of "The Rhythm of the Night," performed by Valeria and again produced by BLAM, Abrahams, Armstrong and DeVries, accelerates the pace of the familiar original, shaping up as a lively samba. This is my least favorite track on the album, even though it’s agreeable and Valeria’s voice is pleasing. Although lyrics are tweaked throughout the film and album to fit the subject matter, this is the one song where it feels forced, overly cheerful and anachronistic. "I know a place where we can dance the whole night away/And it’s called the Moulin Rouge" and "The Moulin Rouge is goin’ on" seem to turn it into a teenager’s notion of a fun night out, which is unconvincing as a stand-alone number and antithetical to the overall content of the album.

Going from the slightly tacky to the sublime, Track Six is Elton John/Bernie Taupin’s "Your Song" as performed by Ewan McGregor (produced by BLAM, Abrahams, Armstrong, DeVries and Patrick Leonard). In the film, McGregor’s character speaks the first few lines of the song as he fumbles for some way to convey his feelings. Sadly, this is omitted – the recording picks up when the music begins and McGregor starts singing. For the first chorus and part of the following verse, the orchestration is very close to what we’re used to in John’s hit version, while McGregor contributes vocals of notable tenderness. It helps to have seen the film, of course, but this guy really sounds like he’s in love. Midway through the second verse, the arrangement springs an audio surprise, as McGregor in the center channel suddenly receives vocal backing from opera singer Alessandro Safina in the mains. On the following chorus, the rippling piano and gentle strings are augmented by a full orchestra, giving the song larger-than-life heft. However, McGregor’s vocals aren’t swamped by these additions, so that while the number becomes amusingly outsized, it doesn’t lose its emotional core.

Track Seven is a cover of Marc Bolan’s defiant "Children of the Revolution," performed here by Bono, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer (Bono and Friday contribute the vocals) and produced by the performers with Richard "Biff" Stannard and Julian Gallagher. The relatively brief hard glam rock number struts and growls with authentic-feeling ‘60s/’70s attitude.

Track Eight, "One Day I’ll Fly Away," is the first number on the soundtrack written (by Will Jennings and Joe Sample) specifically for the Moulin Rouge film. Kidman does justice to the wistful torch ballad that benefits from a strong string arrangement spread into the rears. Recording quality on this number (produced by BLAM & Co.) is superb, with even the quietest breaths at the end of words registering unobtrusively but clearly.

Track 9 is Beck’s coolly insistent cover of David Bowie’s "Diamond Dogs," produced by Timbaland which has some nice subterranean electronic effects, giving it a hint of otherworldly glamour.

Track 10 is billed as "Elephant Love Medley," which is aptly named, as it involves an elephant-sized list of contributions. As McGregor’s starving writer character tries to persuade Kidman’s skeptical courtesan that love is a good thing, they trade lyrics, both traditional and altered for plot purposes from (deep breath) the Beatles’ "All You Need Is Love," Phil Collins’ "One More Night," U2’s "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Don’t Leave Me This Way," Paul McCartney’s "Silly Love Songs," "Up Where We Belong," Bowie and Brian Eno’s "Heroes," Dolly Parton’s "I Will Always Love You" (the same one that Whitney Houston topped charts with) and, again, "Your Song." The compilation is hilarious in a good way the first time we hear it; the juxtapositions of song fragments are deliberately amusing. They’re also cumulatively effective, especially because McGregor and Kidman are not only singing but also acting their hearts out here, putting a lot of nuance into what they’re doing. The two performers are primarily in the center channel, subtly reinforcing the film tie-in (most DVD dialogue resides in the center, after all). The rears are relatively restrained at first, but come to life fully in the "Heroes" section, registering not only music but ripples of laughter from the characters (even they know they’re being a little crazy in this courtship). Like several other tracks on the album, this one calls for a word of caution, as the introduction operatic vocals (the liner notes list Jamie Allen, but the film’s credits list Placido Domingo – one or the other is wrong or they’ve put together two remarkably similar versions) and another symphonic swell bring up the volume to all-encompassing levels.

Track 11, the Kidman/McGregor duet "Come What May," written by David Baerwald, is the second song created specifically for the film. Produced by David Foster, this song is a fairly straightforward and appealing (if conventional) musical romantic ballad. The charming vocals and swelling strings would be at home on any stage musical soundtrack.

Just in case you were in danger of mellowing out over the preceding two numbers, Track 12, "El Tango de Roxanne," is pretty much guaranteed to give you a major jolt. The number is derived primarily from Sting’s "Roxanne," interspersed with the refrain "Le Tango de Moulin Rouge" by Marianito Mores, Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. The number is cast as an ultra-dramatic tango. Jacek Korman’s deep vocals are so arresting and raspy that they practically strip the paint from the walls, while McGregor sounds effectively distraught in the counterpoint melody. Jose Feliciano contributes some intricate guitar action, while shivery strings, piano and mournful back-up vocals swirl through the rears. If you want for some reason to create an ambience of imminent doom in your listening environment, this song will do it – by the denouement, the singers sound as if they are descending straight into Hell.

Track 13, "Complainte de La Butte," is a song with lyrics by Jean Renoir (of all people), performed in French and English by Rufus Wainwright and produced by Michel Pepin and Wainwright. The number does its best to sound like a soft, atmospheric French café ballad, with a gradual layering on of instruments, including a piano in the rears that works into an arrangement that sounds almost like something Billy Joel might play. An accordion and strings wistfully assist singer Wainwright in the mains.

Track 14, "Hindi Sad Diamonds," may sound pretty peculiar out of context on the album (in the film, it’s a massive Indian-themed production number), as it’s a mixture of "Chamma Chamma" by Sameer, "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend" and "The Hindi" by Steve Sharples, as performed by Nicole Kidman, John Leguizamo and Alka Yagnik. It’s a trippy blend of gloomily booming synth in the rears and insistent, almost James Bond-theme strings, high wailing vocals and a techno loop. The track, produced by BLAM, DeVries and Sharples, is striking and strange, carrying the fascination of the unique.

Track 15 is a different version of the opener "Nature Boy." Bowie is joined this time by Massive Attack, with Robert "3D" Del Naja, Neil Davidge and Craig Armstrong producing. There’s lots of hum, whine, boom and reverberation in all speakers, which is intended. Likewise, the volume goes in and out on purpose (don’t try to adjust it), as though we are listening to a song played over a radio on which reception may be lost at any moment – presumably to signify our imminent departure from the universe of Moulin Rouge. It does end an elsewhere roaring album on a surprisingly soft, melancholy note – careful listeners will hear Kidman whisper "I love you" as the last sound of the album.

Two omissions from the album that appear in the film are the song in which the main characters pitch their pixilated musical ideas to the tune of Offenbach’s "Can Can" and the rendition of "Like a Virgin" by Broadbent, which can safely be categorized as unforgettable. However, the Moulin Rouge soundtrack is emphatically worth owning and, indeed, may inspire compulsive repeat listening.







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