Out of the ethereal gasses of pop culture, a revolution is coalescing. You could hear it when Björk, in the middle of all that Dogmafied early-’60s drabness, broke into her soaring rhapsodies of sacrificial selfhood in Dancer in the Dark. You could hear it, more recently, in MTV’s ”hip hopera” Carmen or even in A Knight’s Tale, where Heath Ledger brandishes his medieval weapon to the schlock-funky strains of ”Takin’ Care of Business.” Is this irony, postmodern collage, or pure next-millennium passion? All of the above. Love it or not, the rock musical is back — not just revived but genetically reconstituted, its central nervous system newly wired by the transformative aesthetic of music video.
In Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a whirling fantasia of rococo kitsch set in the legendary Paris nightclub circa 1900, the characters are ladies, gentlemen, dandies, courtesans, and bohemians — a remembrance, in other words, of things very much past — but we experience them in frenzied jump-cut flashes, as if the director had staged the movie during an absinthe hallucination. When they open their mouths to express their inner selves, out come some of the most cherished pop songs of the late 20th century (”Roxanne,” ”Like a Virgin,” ”Smells Like Teen Spirit”), as well as snippets of ”The Sound of Music” and other pre-counterculture standards. Christian (Ewan McGregor), an idealistic young writer devoted to the pursuit of ”truth, beauty, and love,” is ushered into the baroque sanctum of Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star of the Moulin Rouge’s naughty stocking-flash stage show and the most coveted courtesan in Paris. After a few stabs at conversation, he lapses into a woozy-warm rendition of Elton John’s ”Your Song,” and damned if the movie doesn’t caress our eardrums with romance. Moments later, the black sky has gone twirly-psychedelic.
The rock opera, of course, is nothing new, but in Moulin Rouge, the spectacle of rock employed in a period setting, funny and absurd as it often appears, speaks to us in a new and galvanizing way. It slashes through the distance that so many of us feel toward musicals, not just because the songs here really are our songs, but because the very incongruity evokes that casual, private dream world in which rock has become the daily libretto of our lives. As someone who considers himself a happy child of A Hard Day’s Night and Tommy, Scorpio Rising and Saturday Night Fever and MTV, I was more than willing to meet Luhrmann’s flaky, bedazzled experiment halfway. Visually, the movie, with its sumptuous digitized landscapes that turn Paris into a nocturnal urban layer cake, is a mirage of fin de siecle decadence: the gloriously cluttered slope of Montmartre, the red-light windmill that sits atop the Moulin Rouge, advertising sin as a kind of mock-historical prerogative.
But Moulin Rouge, seductive as it can be, is also an extravaganza of shrill camp. What’s wrong with the picture has nothing to do with its audacious soundtrack; it’s that the film seems to have been directed by a madman with a palm buzzer. Luhrmann, who made Strictly Ballroom and the revved-into-incoherence William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, shoves pinched and overly made-up faces at us, and he smashes all sense of space and time, so that the floor of the Moulin Rouge comes off as a bad-trip version of Studio 54 crossed with the Star Wars cantina. The place is decorated with grotesque caricatures like Toulouse-Lautrec, played by John Leguizamo with a lisp that redefines tongue-tied, and the rouged impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent), a nightmare of unctuousness who makes the Cabaret emcee look demure. Luhrmann, it’s clear, wants to be accused of going too far, but the result is a musical that substitutes irony for pop passion, misanthropic disjointedness for lyrical flow. Even the leads are beautiful robo-archetypes, tragic in outline only.
Christian is in love with Satine, but she has been promised to the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), a supercilious fop who has agreed to finance the Moulin Rouge’s new theatrical stage. The duke has been made into such a stylized aristo-idiot that there’s virtually no tension to the triangle. Nicole Kidman has an ivory beauty and an accomplished whiplash-dominatrix style but not, perhaps, the eccentric dynamism of a true star. As Satine, she’s introduced singing ”Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (with a brief segue into ”Material Girl”), and Luhrmann is so busy piling on the overripe Marilyn/Madonna symbolism that we’re not allowed to figure out who, exactly, this woman is. She becomes lovers with Christian, but Kidman never quite connects with McGregor, who strikes the only notes of genuine emotion in the movie.
Luhrmann may turn out to be the Gen-Y Ken Russell — a put-on libertine who bends the world around his gaudy hysterical rhythms. In Moulin Rouge, for all of his glitzoid artifice, he’s rarely successful at using songs to gratify the musical junkie’s primal desire to merge with the characters’ hearts. By the second half, most of the rock spirit has leaked out of the movie, replaced by lugubrious neo-studio-system clichés. One has to wonder: Can the new rock musical survive, even thrive? You better believe it will, even if it has to go further than Moulin Rouge does, refining and cultivating its own excess, to attain something like innocence. B-