“People want to see music and story work together,” says filmmaker Baz (short for Bazmark) Luhrmann, “and I think we’ve got the cinematic language. Music unites us. It transcends time and geography and unites us no matter what our backgrounds. Definitely, music has a power beyond our literal understanding. Now if you can collude that with the act of storytelling, it is a powerful and unstoppable force.”
The genesis of Luhrmann’s latest spectacle, the glorious postmodern musical Moulin Rouge, came from a visit to the Parisian nightclub where the infamous can-can is now merely canned entertainment for tourists anxious to glimpse bohemian naughtiness. He may have gone there for the kitsch of LaToya Jackson’s snake act, but Luhrmann found enough echoes of the Moulin Rouge’s avant-garde era — the phantasmagoric fin-de-siècle decadence captured by painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — that it sparked something in his feverish imagination.
“I just had this realization,” Luhrmann says in Los Angeles, “that here was a lot of the beginnings of popular culture as we know today. Debussy, Ravel and Satie equal pop music — Toulouse-Lautrec, Andy Warhol and the Factory — the whole idea of where we are today started to come from this extraordinary time and place. So I had the desire to recapture that spirit.”
For someone who has a hand in every detail of his extraordinarily textured films (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), Luhrmann’s favorite part of making movies comes before the cameras ever start rolling.
“I love the research,” he enthuses. “I love the getting into the life of the film, getting into the characters, understanding their world, becoming completely and utterly absorbed with the world of the film.”
The idea Luhrmann brought back to the Sydney, Australia-based creative team he heads with wife and collaborator Catherine Martin was a story set in 1899 Paris which would blend classical elements (the Orpheus myth) and 19th-century popular tales (Camille, La Bohème and Emile Zola’s Nana) with an end-of-the-millennium sensibility. With Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann would infuse the movie musical with elements of opera and give it a new spin by filling the sound track with reinterpretations of contemporary pop songs. (The exception is “Come What May,” written by David Baerwald for the film.)
“Baz kept talking about it,” recalls Martin, who is Moulin Rouge’s production and costume designer, “in terms of real artificiality as opposed to artificial reality. So that was kind of the philosophy that we had. Then, of course, we took the sort of 19th-century baroqueness and gave it a bit of a tweak.”
Growing up in the tiny hamlet of Heron’s Creek, Australia — which he describes as resembling the desert town in Bagdad Café — Luhrmann fell in love with the Hollywood musicals shown in the cinema his father ran along with the family farm and gas station. He was attracted to the way musicals could set their own rules and create remarkable, insular worlds where reality was heightened. (Luhrmann adopted this philosophy and that, along with the bold aesthetic he created with Martin, marked the future filmmaker as the enfant terrible of Australian theater.)
“It’s the nature of musicals,” he explains, “that they are decadent and lush, and you get a sense that everything is extreme. However, one engages in degrees of discipline in it. The intensity of it — the muchness, if you like — is actually inherent in traditional musical language.”
While researching a stage musical, Luhrmann traveled to India and was captivated by a Hindi-language Bollywood film, whose hedonistic splendor and grand gestures also engendered the audience’s emotional devotion. It would serve as a model for Moulin Rouge.
“The one thing I haven’t heard anyone say about the movie is that it’s boring,” says Nicole Kidman, whose consumptive courtesan Satine falls for Ewan McGregor’s Christian, an impoverished writer.
“It is amazing,” she continues, “how you can depict strong emotions like jealousy or love or obsession through music and dance far more readily [than through straightforward dialogue]. Once we embraced that concept during the love scenes, being able to sing “Come What May” to each other — or instead of whispering in each other’s ear, actually singing — it made it easier in a strange way.”
A sequence where Kidman and McGregor sing atop a 60-foot gilded elephant (a structure modeled on an actual Moulin Rouge annex which served as an opium den) defines their relationship via a song ingeniously constructed from bits of pop nuggets as diverse as U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and the Kiss staple, “I Was Made For Loving You.”
“In the ‘Elephant Love Medley,’” says Martin, “you really get that thing of people speaking through song. This is a fabulously joyous musical conversation and you can really see the investment of the actors in that scene, because that’s what carries it: that they actually act through the song.”
“That was what Baz wanted,” concurs Kidman, “to keep the plot and the love story and the emotions that were being depicted present and alive during those scenes.”
Luhrmann’s belief in the power of music (his oddball single, “Everyone’s Free To Wear Sunscreen,” was an international hit) is behind this $50-million experiment, one that may revive a moribund genre. It isn’t the first or last chance he’ll take in a diverse career driven by the radically simple desire to continually make life more interesting.
“We’re off-the-road people,” he explains, “and what I mean by that is once you get on a specific track, it’s very hard to get off it. What actually defines bohemia, in a sense, is the ability to wake up in the morning and say, ‘You know what? We’re not going that way anymore.’ That you’re in control of where you’re traveling to and how you’re traveling.”
“The freedom to go where you want,” he adds, “that’s the upside. The payment is the risk inherent in that.”Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org