Moulin Rouge! was almost an original musical (and other soundtrack secrets)
A magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan, bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment.
The Moulin Rouge soundtrack is spectacular, spectacular — no words in the vernacular can describe it.
But the eccentric pop fever dream that it became almost never was. When director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann first conceived of his 2001 film, it was as an original musical.
"He was really interested in Paris at the turn of the century, and he was really interested in the Moulin Rouge as a place," co-screenwriter Craig Pearce tells EW. " And as a cauldron of creativity, a space like Studio 54 or Andy Warhol's The Factory — that brought people together and produced an explosion of creativity and culture."
Simultaneously, Luhrmann was interested in revitalizing and reinventing the big screen musical, taking a similar revolutionary approach to a dramatic form that he had with Shakespeare in Romeo + Juliet. Both he and Pearce were intrigued by the myth of Orpheus, the musician and poet who traverses the underworld to save his lost love and fails.
"It was like a big disco or a nightclub before that term existed," Pearce explains of the historical Moulin Rouge. "Marrying that with the Orpheus myth was the beginning of going, 'Okay, our lead character has to be Orpheus and our lead female character has to be Eurydice. He has to try and rescue her from the underworld. Well, what's the underworld? I guess the underworld is the world of the Moulin Rouge.'"
With those pieces in place, they started writing a script, structuring it around what they dubbed "STAFs," or "scenes that are fundamental." Within those scenes, they would pinpoint where the emotions exploded and needed to break out into song. But they wanted reference points for a potential composer, so they started throwing in pre-existing pop songs as placeholders to help establish mood and tone.
"Each of those 'STAFs,' we started by saying, 'What's a good song about jealousy?'" explains executive music producer and music supervisor Anton Monsted. "We would make those long lists, and it would be like 'Roxanne' by The Police and a list of 10 to 20 songs for each of these STAFs."
Pearce describes a chaotic collaboration where lists and charts of music papered the room, ultimately leading them to realize their musical was in these songs. "It just started to become obvious little by little, that to use known songs fit thematically and stylistically," he reflects.
"It became evident pretty early on that to write 12 to 20 new songs for this film and have them be immediately understandable and resonate with the audience [would be a challenge]," adds Monsted. "The film's setting was a time of flourishing creativity, and Baz felt that the 1890s in Paris was the beginning of the 20th century as we know it, culturally, and we were making a film at the very end of the 20th century. We felt it was quite apt to use that opportunity to use the film as a lens through which to see and celebrate the great pop songs of the 20th century."
That, of course, presented a new challenge — determining which songs from over 100 years of music were the best fit and securing the rights. Monsted describes the development process as one more akin to a stage musical with workshops an essential part of the script and score's evolution. "Over a long period, we had a number of musical workshops where it was a musical table read where we would rehearse numbers with the cast and the actors would sing the sung parts live," he recounts. "That process helped us to discover which songs were best for which actors and what suited their voice and musical range."
Before they even got to that stage, Pearce and Luhrmann would record the scene aloud, including Pearce (badly, by his estimation) singing whatever song they'd selected to determine if it worked dramatically.
Music director Marius de Vries describes the process as an extension of the one they'd already established on Romeo + Juliet, which was taking an existing musical catalog and re-inventing it.
The other, and perhaps the biggest hurdle, was then securing the rights to all the tracks they'd set their heart on. But their champion came in one of music's biggest icons, none other than Sir Elton John. "Baz pitched the film, and said, 'Look, we're doing a film, and one of the main characters Christian is a poet, and his poetry is going to be the greatest songs of the 20th century and we want to use 'Your Song,'" recounts Monsted. "And Elton basically said, 'Let me help you any way I can. Let's start by getting the rights for 'Your Song' sorted out, so that when you go to meet with other artists you can say, 'Hey, I've got Elton already locked in.' That strategy worked really well."
They also met with the heads of all the major music publishers and convinced them to sign on to their wild experiment. "People saw what Baz was trying to do and got on board," reflects Monsted. "I don't feel it was a process that was defined by struggle or resistance. It was a process that was actually people going, 'It sounds crazy and like it could be really cool.'"
One of the film's most memorable moments is when Satine (Nicole Kidman), Christian (Ewan McGregor), Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and others completely make up a pitch for the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). Set to the tune of the "can-can," they improvise a ridiculous storyline, emphasizing it will be "spectacular, spectacular" with original lyrics penned by Pearce and Luhrmann.
Fittingly, returning to Luhrmann's original for the storytelling, the can-can is a piece of music that was written for an opera titled Orpheus in the Underworld.
"We felt it was important to delve into the music of the time and that particular piece of music was one of the smash hits of the time," says De Vries. "From a very early stage, and also knowing that the can-can dance was an important part of showing the Montmarte night life at the fin de siecle, we wanted to take that piece of music and see what could be done with it."
Which is how it ended up solving a musical conundrum. "We wanted a feeling of a traditional, 'Hey, let's put on a show,' '40s musical feel for that particular song — 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' songs like that," recounts Pearce. "But what we found with that one was that it needed to be really specific in its detail to the show they were putting on in order for it to be credible. We did try using songs that existed, like those songs that I just mentioned, but they didn't work. They weren't specific enough. We probably were just like, 'Let's try this with the can-can music because it has that frenetic energy, and it's of the world,' and we just tried it and it worked.'"
El Tango de Roxanne
The biggest, most sumptuous production number of the film combines a rendition of the tango titled "Tanguera," The Police's "Roxanne," and an original operatic melody line and lyrics for Christian. Merging together these three forms, it drives the film to its dramatic and musical climax.
"We wanted it to be a big, emotional number where jealously ruptures the world," Pearce says. "We started looking for songs, and Baz and I have always been a big fan of Sting and The Police. That song just seemed to express really well this idea of jealousy, and it's all about someone who's in love with a sex worker. And then the tango comes from out of brothels of Argentina, and it's often described as a fight between a man and a woman. Either Baz or Anton found that tango tune, which is by an Argentinian composer. The idea came in of marrying the two together. Then, we wrote some additional lyrics because we wanted Christian to have a specific voice in it."
"I do remember I was definitely the person who came up with the idea of him shouting 'Roxanne' in the very beginning of the piece," De Vries says.
Monsted also credits De Vries with first realizing the potential of mashing up the tango and "Roxanne," pulling an all-nighter to get the two pieces of music to fit together. It's such a perfect fit it almost could feel like a happy accident instead of painstaking hours of work, so much so, that Sting himself reportedly told De Vries and Luhrmann, "How did you know that that 'Roxanne' was secretly a tango?"
Come What May
The only original song in the film is Satine and Christian's love ballad, "Come What May," which was composed by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert.
It was originally written for Luhrmann's previous project, Romeo + Juliet, but ultimately was not used. Its journey to becoming a part of the Moulin Rouge! score was roundabout as well.
"That was the scene that tortured us the most as we tried to figure out what songs would work," says De Vries. "We did demos of just about every famous love song in the history of pop music and nothing would stick. At the time, it felt a little bit of a defeat to include one song that wasn't canonical given the music strategy of the whole thing."
But Pearce says it became evident after much trial and error that dramatically, it was really essential this moment and expression of love between them be an original song. "We wanted a song with no baggage because it's Satine and Christian's secret code song," he says. "It's the device at the end that lets Christian know that actually Satine does love him, and it resolves the film. We could have used a song like, say, West Side Story's 'Somewhere.' But any song that we could think of in that vein had huge associations with other characters and other shows."
Monsted says they left no stone unturned when it came to having a song written for the film, but Luhrmann remembered this track that had been submitted for inclusion in Romeo + Juliet. When they first returned to it, it sounded nothing like the final version we hear on screen. It was written as a solo, not a duet, and it was in waltz time. De Vries describes it as having a "post-Appalachian, country feel."
But Luhrmann saw through all those trappings to something in the lyrics that serviced the story. "He felt that it was the right lyrical sentiment, but that it also has a sincerity and simplicity about it, melodically, that just felt right and grounded," says Monsted. He and Luhrmann spent the week between Christmas and New Year's in 1999 working non-stop to whip the song into something workable.
Though de Vries credits McGregor and Kidman's vocal performances for guiding the ultimate feel of the track. "The style of that song was dictated entirely by the vocal performances that it needed to carry," he says. "In contrast to 'El Tango de Roxanne,' which comes screaming onto the screen with its style firmly established, with 'Come What May,' it's all about the honesty and fragility of vocal performances and then what the music needs to do to support those."
The official soundtrack
Moulin Rouge! Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart and eventually peaked at No. 3. It included some of the film's best loved tunes, including "Elephant Love Medley," "Come What May" and "El Tango de Roxanne," but it was also rife with tracks not included in the film or expanded from the versions on screen, including David Bowie's take on "Nature Boy" and the radio-hit rendition of "Lady Marmalade."
After the huge success of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, they knew they weren't going to do a straightforward cast album but rather something more curated. "By inviting artists we loved to be part of the textural world of the Moulin Rouge, there was a natural synergy and alignment between them and the world of film we were creating," Monsted explains.
This manifested itself in unique numbers that reflected the ethos of the film at large. For instance, Luhrmann first envisioned "Lady Marmalade" as a global track, bringing a different singer from each continent on to record. Ultimately, the label shifted the focus to include stars from different genres, which is how they arrived at the Missy Elliott produced track featuring Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya, and Pink.
Some of the soundtrack choices even led to rethinking numbers in the film. They loved Bowie's take on "Nature Boy" so much they considered using it onscreen, but ultimately, they decided it was too distracting to have David Bowie's voice issue from John Leguizamo's mouth.
"We we were trying to do that thing, which is to give life to the film outside of the film itself, and the music is the obvious place to do that," Monsted adds.
The soundtrack was such a hit, it spawned a Volume 2, featuring more of the film's songs, including "The Pitch" and the Duke's take on "Like a Virgin."
Both albums stand as a testament to the mammoth task that was making a musical out of an eclectic, carefully curated array of pop songs. But in the end, Monsted says it was all a labor of love — and successful because their collaboration and work ethic reflected that of the artists in the storytelling.
As he puts it, "We were living according to bohemian ideals. We weren't becoming crazy artists or anything, but I we all took those pillars — truth, beauty, freedom, love — very much to heart."