Monday, May 4, 2009

More Like...Moulin Ruse


Sure, an argument about Moulin Rouge seems eight years too late, but I finally just saw the whole thing and have been arguing about it continuously for a solid week.

It all started last week, when my brother’s friend Jamison brought over Moulin Rouge. And then Jamison and I got into a lengthy discussion about the movie. And then that sparked a week of debate for me.

Moulin Rouge.

Oh, how those two words have been a plague of feelings (for vs. against) for a solid week. Everyone seems to have an opinion of Moulin Rouge, so why not have this discussion almost a decade later?

Moulin Rouge is Jamison’s favorite movie and I had never seen the entire thing, as of last week. I had only seen the first half hour, but I told him that I liked a lot of what I saw, but the inclusion of modern rock hits ruined a lot of the potential I thought the colorful musical had within its grasps.

This was when our opinions surely split.

Jamison couldn’t believe it, which was fair. Every girl in high school that loved the movie adored the soundtrack for its modern interpretation of an old school interpretation of modern songs. But once you attack the main reason that everyone loves a film, it becomes an attack on the film.

Take a letter.

Dear Girls From High School,

I’m sorry I never watched Moulin Rouge when you initially tried to get me to, over and over again. I know you told me that I’d like it. And I did. Sure, it’s years later, but I just thought we should clear all of this up.

But I’m still not watching Grease, you bitches.


Back to me and the bottled up Jamison (close to a good pun, yeah?).

“Do you believe in truth?” Jamison said, rattling off numbers on his fingers.

“Yeah, but who doesn’t?” I said.

“Just yes or no. Do you believe in beauty?”


“Do you believe in freedom?”


“And above all things, do you believe in love?”

“Most definitely.”

“That’s bohemian.”

“Ok, but where in the bohemian movement does it say that lifting songs is cool?”

“It doesn’t, but it’s a unique idea.”

“Is it? Didn’t A Knight’s Tale come out before Moulin Rouge?”

“Ok,” Jamison said with an audible sigh, looking at my ceiling, “what’s more original…coming up with your own songs like everyone else, or taking other songs?”

“Are you kidding me? Writing your own freakin’ soundtrack.”

Jamison and I continued to debate, and both of us, I think, calmly articulated our points very well. We came to an understanding, and at the end of the discussion, he gave me the film and told me to watch it. So I did. And I loved it.

I mean, how could I not? The film begins with the main character being a disastrous and damaged bearded writer close to tears as he punches out his great tale of being a hopeless romantic that was consumed with love as the biggest thing in life, all the while living as bohmenian in Paris. Also, at some point, a hot redhead is rolling around in sexy lingerie, moaning as some cautiously confident and charming writer reads poetry in a lavishly decorated bedroom with a view.

The film seemed deliciously perfect for me and how I interpret/glamorize the writing process as well as love.

And Moulin Rouge had balance. The film has some of the silliest possible scenes, such as Christian joining Toulouse-Lautrec’s theater gang, complete with second-long reaction shots and cartoon sound effects. My brother’s impression of Moulin Rouge’s first act is just him widening his eyes and yelling really loud and frantic.

But Moulin Rouge also contains the most gut-wrenching scenes, such as when Christian cries at the end, holding Satine. So, the range of the characters able to balance the goofiest of goofs with the most tragic of tragedies is quite spectacular, spectacular (sorry, couldn’t resist). Actually, Moulin Rouge may have the best crying scene I’ve ever witnessed on screen. Seriously, when Christian is crying uncontrollably and wimpering pathetically over Satine…it made me sick to my stomach. It was that good. It made me feel uncomfortably and hopeless. His face is salty and gross and ruined with sadness and grief. It’s really just devastating to watch.

I mean, the movie is just devastating all-around.

Moulin Rouge is a truly devastating film. It is devastatingly glamorous, devastatingly flamboyant, devastatingly romantic, devastatingly dramatic, devastatingly character-driven and devastatingly heartbreaking. I loved it devastatingly.

But this particular argument is about how Moulin Rouge is also devastatingly unoriginal.

More specifically, I think the soundtrack is devastatingly unoriginal.

And that’s when everyone gets pissed.

Apparently, saying that you think Moulin Rouge’s soundtrack actually hurts the film is like saying everything about the movie is dumb.

“I really liked Moulin Rouge. It was colorful and fun, silly and serious, and it was so well-done. But even though I thought the musical numbers were rad, I think the whole modern songs thing actually kind of hurt the film,” I would say.

“Fuck you! Moulin Rouge is amazing!” they say.

“What? No, no, no, I liked the movie. It is pretty amazing. But the having random songs in there from David Bowie and The Beatles takes away from the magical and surreal feel that the film was trying to bring around.”

“Give me Moulin Rouge or give me death! You are banished from these lands” they may or may not say, their eyes turning a dizzying and disgusting red color with veins popping.

Ok, I’ll stop making up dialogue before it gets out of hand. But still, if you even critique the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge, you might as well just shit on the whole production, because you’ll get the same reaction.

I’ve had argument after argument about Moulin Rouge’s soundtrack this week.

“It’s cool to sing along to songs I know,” a few have said. But you know what? That’s weak. That’s what car rides and house parties are for.

Also, if a movie is good, you will probably watch it over and over again. You might even buy it. And you will probably learn the words. If Moulin Rouge’s soundtrack was good enough and original, you could’ve been singing along the second time you saw it. What, you adored how you could sing along to a movie you were seeing for the first time? Come on, that’s a totally bullshit cop-out to say that you like Moulin Rouge because it has songs you recognize the first time around.

You know who else has songs that you recognize? Cover bands. Ugh.

Saying that you like Moulin Rouge because it has songs you know is like voting for a president because he likes the same American beer that you do.

When I saw the stage musical Wicked for the first time, I sang the original tunes to myself on the way home. Why? Becuase they were so damn catchy, so damn good and just so damn well-arranged. And again, they were original. It was the first time I had heard the music or the words, but I sang them on the way home. Wicked would have been bogus if they had decided to adapt songs. Instead of the track “Popular,” they could have just used half of Avril Lavigne’s musical arsenal.

I feel it’s fair to compare the last musical I saw on stage and the last musical I saw on screen.

Also, it should be noted that I did have a favorite song in Moulin Rouge, and it turns out that it was also the only original composition. I thought ”Come What May” was unbelievably and outrageously good.

And I wish the rest of the movie was like that.

Instead, the movie offers up a “narrow” range of any song from the 20th Century. And it destroys all of what Moulin Rouge could have been. Scene by scene is systematically ruined by these lofty plays on the musical turntable of time, even though the mash-ups and covers are done extraordinarily well. I should probably mention that, though I think the idea botches the integrity of the film, the modern songs are done wonderfully. They really did put thought into what they were doing and how they would do it.

But while the elephant melody is spectacularly well-done, the main focus is not this bursting love between Christian and Satine. What catches the audience is the novelty of songs that recognize.

It doesn’t pose the question, “What will happened to these doomed lovers?” It becomes, “What song will I recognize next?”

Instead of a wondrous and unique composition that floats romantically between the penniless writer and the star actress as a hint of what is to come, the scene becomes a mash-up of love songs. This would only work if the film wasn’t a musical. Hypothetically, if you hire Girl Talk to do a soundtrack, it should be the soundtrack, not the theme of a musical. That’s a novelty act, like a monkey dancing for coins on a cobblestone street corner. It’s not art.

“But it’s such an original idea,” many fans have told me.

Moulin Rouge is based off of the Italian opera La Traviata, which was actually based off of the Dumas novel The Lady Of The Carmellia (which, to be fair, has been the basis of over ten films in France). So, where would the saving grace here be? Well, I think an amazing score of original musical compositions would have done the trick.

Ah yes…they did the exact opposite.

Instead of giving you a whole crazy, wild new world of art, love and wonder…they gave you a comfort zone. They gave you songs you like, knowing that you would find them fascinating in Paris 100 years ago, where they have no place. How wacky and wild, right? No. While an interesting concept, it claws at the character of Christian, because it makes him seem less creative and supporting characters seem dazzlingly inept.

Is it risky, crazy or original to put modern songs in a modern adaptation of long ago?

No, it’s an easy way to make sure that you like the film. It’s a light tactic to bring about fans for the music before the story. You’re already rooted in the movie because they have songs you like and recognize before even addressing anything else in Moulin Rouge.

The whole theme of “musical anachronism” steals whatever credit is left for Moulin Rouge, aside from the oustanding art direction and cinematography. However, those don’t make a movie. There needs to be a solid core to film, especially this flashy and bold, because it otherwise rattles off hollow and trite.

If you’re director Baz Luhrmann, you can’t say, “Well, we took the plot of the musical from an old opera and took the music from new artists.” Because when you do, then you have sincerely just admitted to not coming up with anything original.

“But it looks so good and it’s so fun,” Luhrmann may tell you. Doesn’t count, Aussie. That’s the defense of every shitty action movie that comes out each and every summer where something is blowing up every few minutes.

That’s not truth, beauty or freedom. And what is left of a great love story if everything’s borrowed?

What charisma and compassion do I have left for the saintly characters that ring out the evening sound of music, dance, art and sex, if they’re not even singing their own tunes?

I don’t care how fun it is to recognize songs. That doesn’t work for movies. That works for songs. The reason I love mash-ups is because I think it’s quite impressive to mismatch lyrics and music from two entirely different tracks. However, mash-ups songs are fun to listen to because the music is the only part of the project. When you’re listening to mash-ups, the mash-ups are everything. When you’re watching Moulin Rouge, the mash-ups are not the main theme. The story (plot, characters, setting, etc) of the movie is the main point. That’s what deserves your full attention.

However, your full attention disappears as soon as you hear “The Sound Of Music.”

“Hey, I recognize that song,” you giggle to yourself.

Your first response has nothing to do with the characters. You don’t acknowledge Christian as a magnificent songwriter. You don’t give him credit. He gets nothing from you. The song becomes important, but you miss the song’s importance.

Now, after “The Sound Of Music,” there is a chance to suggest that every musical that followed Moulin Rouge’s Spectacular, Spectacular in the 20th Century stole from Christian’s play. For this notion to work, every song in the film would have to be from a notable musical. If each song has a strong reason for being there on its own, it works as a focused collection.

Do you know why Mamma Mia works as a musical? Because it’s centralized to songs by ABBA. The genre is called “jukebox musicals.” I kid you not. It’s a thing. Look it up. But I’m not saying it has to be set to a particular group. It could just be a genre. It just needs to have some sort of structure. Like I said, if, after “The Sound Of Music,” what followed was just musical numbers, that could’ve worked.

But too soon do you hear the love hymn of ballad anthems, Elton John’s “Your Song.”

And from there, the film loses its best of edges.

How can we be transported to this almost fairy tale world of artists, writers, dancers, actors and lovers, from 100 years ago in a foreign country, if we recognize nearly every song as loud things we constantly hear on spastic music channels or at our nearest bars?

Instead of creating this splendid and overwhelmingly unique, almost tribal, array of bohemian artists, the audience never travels too far, because they are grounded in the roots of everyone from Dolly Parton to T-Rex.

That’s the problem. The soundtrack is obnoxiously obtuse. There’s no speculation of any arrangement. It’s not just songs from musicals that are lifted. It appears that any song from the last half of the 20th Century is the range. That doesn’t count as being wild and interesting. That’s a poorly chosen selection of songs. It’s too random. That’s fine if you want to do something new, but sometimes, something new kills what could’ve been something great.

So, did Luhrmann and his music directors look at every song with the word “love” in it and try to figure out what would work?

That’s too messy to be functioning. It may have worked if it was limited to a similar theme. Again, maybe if it was only musicals, it would become “that song needs to be in the film” instead of “that song could be in the film.”

But to suggest that the play in Moulin Rouge or the sole character of Christian influenced every genre in the 20th Century is so outrageously laughable.

I mean, in 2001, an Australian director made a movie about a French landmark in 1899 with a soundtrack that ranges from the 1950s to the 1990s? Come on…hat seems like a gigantic longshot. And if you’re shooting for that longshot, you better be sure your aim is on target. And it wasn’t.

However, Luhrmann thought he was absolutely on-target. In fact, he spent two years securing the rights to these songs. His motivation seemed logical, but ultimately failed.

Luhrmann said that he considered the themes of the tragic Greek character Orpheus, a musical genius. Luhrmann decided to use songs from the mid-to-late 20th Century to make Christian appear to be an innovative musician and writer to the other chacaracters.

Now, here’s how that fails: Christian isn’t the only character to sing songs from the future. Harold Zidler sings Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and the Argentinian with the wild facial hair sings The Police’s “Roxanne.” Also, remember the whole mash-up melody when all the men sing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the women sing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” by Carol Channing / Marilyn Monroe? Christian didn’t write any of that.

So how the hell does Christian seem like a songwriter prodigy if everyone else can and is continuously writing songs from the future?

He doesn’t. Sure, Christian scores extra points from his fellow bohemian revolution comrades for being talented, but he’s not extraordinarily more talented than them. Even at the end, you think of Toulouse-Lautrec and Harold Zidler as almost mentors of sorts. Even the Argentinian shows up Christian when he initially sings “Roxanne” as a bitter lecture.

Also, if you want your main character to seem like he wrote some amazing original songs as this magnificently talented songwriter, maybe using songs that everyone knows from the last 20 years isn’t the way to go about that. Even in fiction, I consider either Elton John or Bernie Taupin as the one who wrote “Your Song.” When I hear a crowd of flashy theater troopers singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I go right to Kurt Cobain, not whoever you’re selling on the screen. I know what the director was thinking he could do, but it doesn’t work like that. If you play a song that Madonna made famous before I even understood music, then I’m immediately going to think of Madonna, not Christian, Satine or Zidler. That isn’t forwarding the story. It’s actually a huge distraction from the potential the film and its characters had.

The list goes on and on. From start to finish, the inclusion of modern songs ruin the film. It could have been one of my favorite musicals if it had an original soundtrack. I like a lot of musicals, love some of them even. But I can’t see myself saying, “Oh, I just loved how Moulin Rouge mixed in Phil Collins with Kiss.” Give me a break.

Baz Luhrmann screwed up.

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