Moulin Rouge and Conservative Chaos 

It’s official. The world-historic death of the musical film is upon us. It’s been said before, but usually followed by some caveat about how (Woody Allen/Lars Von Trier/Rivette/Parker&Stone/etc.) intends to resurrect it. But the musical is no longer a mode of expression, a cultural norm, a form in concert with an era. Rather, it is another tool in a directorial canon, a device to comment with and to comment on. Passed from the realm of the living, it resides in a cultural graveyard of tropes subject to periodic reanimation. To produce a musical film is not a reflex action, but a deliberate semiotic act.

Tune back to the early days of talkies, and remember an era before television. A film was an event, a plan for a day. All forms of entertainment assumed an organic single form. One couldn’t flip between CNN, HBO, MTV, NBC. There weren’t half-hour blocks of various format. If you wanted your drama, your music, your comedy, it all had to come in one neat package. Why did people sing in films? Well, where else were they going to? It was natural. But as mass media further massed itself, sharper simpler genres emerged. The art-house became specialized, the music became specialized, and it all began to be stripped away, piece by piece. To produce a musical today is to hark back to that simpler era, to reassemble the diaspora of the entertainment industry, to swim against the spirit of the times which demands ever more division of the labor of fun.

The staged musical continues to flourish, but only as a celebration of spectacle over substance. The stage has nothing to offer over the big and little screens but flash. Webber’s triumph is the downfall of large-form theater, as staged musicals become less events than phenomena, cross marketed and subject to endless sitcom jokes, thrown on bestselling albums and onto the billboard singles chart. But at least reality remains suspended. Film’s situation is even worse. No longer can a character burst into song. They must sing for a reason, and the reason becomes, again and again, a commentary on the nature of song itself. Dancer In The Dark was a wry commentary on the musical, demanding near-Dogme restrictions on it, but in the end an exultation of the musical, of imagination and escape, a great lost dream cut short by the hangman’s noose of grey reality. But burying Bjork’s character wasn’t enough to bury the musical film. Moulin Rouge, however, while still imperfect, may be the best memorial service we will ever be offered.

The rock musical has been tried before, to be sure. But first it was called the rock opera. And it had one strong point. Just like rock itself, the films produced didn’t make sense. But four minutes of nonsense at a time seems to be all that the modern consumer can handle, and rock-operas faded quick. So Moulin Rouge‘s premise seems enticing at first, a musical that lives through popular rock songs, just as the musicals of their time were often written around show-stoppers already making the nightclub rounds.

So what’s the rub? Well, let’s get the good points out of the way first. There has never been a film like Moulin Rouge, never such exuberant visual decadence and spectacle, and never with the aforementioned premise. Luhrmann’s mise-en-scene stumbles on occasional immortality, elegant and striking in a way that only new-millennial technology can provide. The film’s vocabulary runs from sepia-tone pathos to Technicolor red and green so strong as to repulse. His cameras zoom around a fictional CGI Paris like bugs skitter over puddles. The City Of Lost Children is clearly an inspiration, but the fin-de-seicle splendor of Moulin Rouge dates it as about twenty years (fourteen, to be exact) pre-apocalypse.

But where the film could have been brilliant, it comes up as merely prodigal. Luhrmann’s editing is as terrible as his cinematography is inspired. Cuts come fast and for no reason, never pausing to linger over his marvelous invented world, nor over Nicole Kidman’s best flirty playful moments (which deserved to steal the show), nor over Leguizamo’s inspired Toulouse-Lautrec. The songs are spliced fast and rough, with no room to spread out, sacrificing what could have been a majestic cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” for an excruciable line-trading medley that hardly deserves to be called a song at all. Another half-hour of runtime would have done Luhrmann a world of good. It would be all too easy to blame MTV and videogames for this. But MTV videos are cut much better, with more flow and pacing, in tune with the pulse of a song rather than a cacophonous medley. Luhrmann’s slapdash use of music is what truly destroys the pacing, in sharp contrast to the measured artistry of music videos.

But why does Luhrmann savage such great songs? Now we get to the real and deep flaw of Moulin Rouge. Like Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, it insists on being all about love. To Luhrmann, rock and pop are the opposite of love. They’re crass, dirty, and above all about sex. Luhrmann’s Bohemia is all about “Truth, Beauty, and above all, Love.” But today’s and yesterday’s and yesteryear’s bohemians were really about getting crunk, screwing around, and sprinkling the whole wasted deal with chintzy glitter. They were as raw and animal, as base and obscene, as aimless and dangerous as any ever put on this earth. At least the best ones were. But MTV killed the musical, much to Luhrmann’s dismay, and so he has it out for MTV. Cobain’s anthemic “Teen Spirit” cry that “here we are now, entertain us” is transformed from the impotent troubled rage of the disenfranchised to ominous marching music for horny dandies. I thought it was a terrible, wonderful joke when the opening strains of “The Sound Of Music” were embraced as the soul of bohemia by Toulouse-Lautrec and company, but it turns out that Luhrmann was dead serious.

Songs of musicals, and songs like Elton John’s which belong in musicals are the only ones given star treatment. Everything which belongs to MTV is rendered obscene, fit only for a leering evil lothario to cackle over while he readies himself for a night of loveless lovemaking. Madonna’s infamous performance of “Like A Virgin” was a cry of freedom, no mere put-on but a put-down of a culture that glorified sexless love. Luhrmann again makes the worst of the material he chooses. The resulting scene, hilarious to be sure, is a grotesque story of amoral subjugation and power-lust. So we are in essence asked to root for reaction, for tin-pan alley against The Alley Cats, for Hammerstein against MC Hammer, for Irving Berlin against Lou Reed’s Berlin.

So maybe “true love” isn’t rock and roll. Unfortunately, Luhrmann’s “true love” isn’t much of anything beyond an unqualified and ill-supported assertion. Satine might chose love over money, but the film doesn’t go out of its way to show her grappling with the issue. And the script throws so many obstacles in her way that she’s insane not to choose money. Like consumption. No rock and roll hero should die of consumption. One should die young because they live fast, not just… because. Believe me, I tried to get caught up in the love story, but the exultation of romance with a big “R” got in the way of all the subtle and luminous ways in which true intimacy is expressed, all this fuss about fidelity being the least of which.

In the end, the rock and roll story is money and glory, and the musical story is broke-ass love. Moulin Rouge pulls our heart-strings just that much further and gives us dead-ass love. Except, Satine’s last words are that Christian should go on and create, because he has so much to offer the world. And thus another meandering plotless monster decides that it should end up praising artistry. After all, Luhrmann’s bohemia places Beauty and Truth right behind Love.

So Christian sits around looking depressed, and typing, which provides the frame-tale in which the whole film is told. Depressed typing isn’t a very compelling vision of bohemia to me, or of much else for that matter. But, apparently, it is truthful. Fuck that. The days of true romantic love, true romantic artistry, and true romantic truth are all long past. The shards are so worn down and distorted that the image of the whole can no longer be reconstructed. But there are new and meaningful mosaics being made every day. Luhrmann joins the ranks of creators of self-congratulatory art-about-great-art in turning his back on the new and indulging in wistful nostalgia for the days that never were. For all the hits-and-misses on the soundtrack to the film, one simple song could have made all the difference. Imagine if the ending dropped the anemia, the bathos, the onanistic smirk, and exploded into a full-on rendition of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” as characters socialized and hedonized, while Satine and The Evil Duke enjoyed a session of glorious mindblowing sex. Now that’s what I call a musical.

written by Sterling Clover, June 1 2001