Before watching the movie:
Unsurprisingly, I have very little knowledge of this movie from the outside. Maybe I should try to find more movies people have completely given away so I have more to talk about. I did manage to get that it had something to do with a cabaret in historic Paris, and after a long time being confused about the provenance of songs like “Lady Marmalade”, I came to learn it was a jukebox musical. This was probably the first jukebox musical I became aware of that wasn’t entirely from the catalog of a single act, and I was a bit surprised that could be done, since the most notable jukebox musicals I know of are Mamma Mia! (ABBA), Across the Universe (Beatles), and Movin’ Out (Billy Joel, not a movie yet as far as I know, also until just now I thought the show was bafflingly titled after “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”). Stepping back I think what happened was it became a bit of a trend for long-running musicians to license out their collected works to Broadway, which is certainly a lot easier to build a show around than trying to license the works that make sense to use in the story you planned to tell.
Anyway, the briefest of looks over what this movie is about informs me that it is not directly related to the previous movies named for the Moulin Rouge venue, and that Henri Toulouse-Latrec is a character here, which kind of makes sense since I know he painted for the Parisian cabarets and I dimly recall one for the Moulin Rouge. He’s not the lead, but does look a bit important, so I don’t know how that’s going to go.
After watching the movie:
Young, idealist Christian moves from England to the seedy part of Paris to chase a Bohemian lifestyle of art and truth, determined to gain the lived experience he needs to write a great story about the power of love that will define the cultural revolution of the young 20th century. Almost immediately, he gets collected by a troupe of Bohemian artists trying to create a show called Spectacular Spectacular that they hope to be paid to perform at the Moulin Rouge. Their music is good, but Christian quickly shows up their writing and they accept him as one of their own, sure he will write them a hit. The brains of the outfit, Toulouse-Latrec, plans to get Christian alone with the star of the Moulin Rouge and its most popular courtesan, Satine, on the expectation that if she can be convinced, she will convince Zidler, the proprietor. Meanwhile, Zidler is hoping to turn his cabaret club into a proper theater, but needs the financial support of the wealthy and powerful Duke of Monroth for the cost of the conversion, and brokers a deal to have Satine sleep with the Duke to win him over. Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke and in the course of their mistaken meeting, they begin to fall in love before the Duke arrives at her door and Christian, unable to escape, hides unsuccessfully. With the quick thinking of Christian, Zidler, and the Spectacular Spectacular troupe, they convince the Duke that Christian was there to pitch Spectacular Spectacular, which they improvise on the spot to be an Indian tale of a penniless
writer sitar player who falls in love with a beautiful courtesan promised to marry an evil maharajah while accidentally dressed as the maharajah, and their secret love affair complicated by his sitar being magically compelled to tell the truth. The Duke agrees to fund the show and the venue renovations, and Christian breaks down’s Satine’s pragmatic reluctance and convinces her to carry on a relationship with him. The Duke’s two conditions for funding are that Zidler sign the deed of the Moulin Rouge over to him, and to bind Satine’s courtesan activities solely to him. As Spectacular Spectacular is crafted and rehearsed, Satine tells the Duke she won’t be with him until opening night for the sake of the purity of her performance, while she and Christian are constantly finding “working on the show” reasons to meet alone, cover for a secret that everyone at the Moulin Rouge knows except for the man with the power of everyone’s futures in his hands who hates other people touching his things
After Mamma Mia, this was a bit of a letdown. I had ABBA songs stuck in my head all last week and I thought I would be replacing them from this movie, but the music was not nearly as compelling. More creative things are being done with the songs, they’re being reshaped to suit the needs of the story to a certain extent, but it often leaves the impression of “hey, it’s a reference!” without elevating either the pantomime-caliber story or the licensed song. There’s a “medley” number that’s just rapid-fire musical quotations about love, few of them really being all that transformative with the exception of “Silly Love Songs” getting to become a mini-debate. “Your Song” starts out being used quite charmingly as something Christian is making up on the spot to Satine during their meet cute, but it quickly becomes too load-bearing. Many of the songs used I simply did not recognize. I think the use of “Like a Virgin” is meant to be uncomfortable, but two decades of cultural shift later it was one of the most revolting moments of cinema I’ve seen in a while. “The Show Must Go On” feels like a powerful musical theater moment, but being a repurposed Queen song that doesn’t quite fit with the situation it’s being used to describe, it doesn’t have as much power as its original context. However thanks to its inclusion, I do have Freddie Mercury’s version added to my current collection of earworms.
This movie really desperately wants to be a love story for the ages, and therefore talks incessantly about love and the power of love and believing in love, without really having anything to back it up. The biggest stakes are minimized and the smallest stakes are magnified ad absurdum. Once the forbidden doomed romance begins, everything else is pushed to the margins. The ending vindicates love while also being overbearingly tragic in a romantic way. This isn’t a love story for the ages, it’s a love story for teenagers. There is room for unabashed stories with little nuance, but the execution here feels clumsy and immature. It took Luhrmann years to assemble the rights for all the music he wanted to use, and the visuals are certainly high-value, so I could perhaps overlook the clumsiness of the story execution better if the music hadn’t also disappointed.
Through pretty much the whole movie, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were better alternatives for my time. Not only did the setting and love triangle remind me extensively of The Phantom of the Opera and make me want to be watching that instead, some scenes seemed lifted out of the ill-advised sequel Love Never Dies. The idea of using modern music to tell a period story reminded me of how A Knight’s Tale translated the Middle Ages popular culture into rock music to make it more relatable, but nothing here is as inspired as Queen’s guitar music coming out of herald trumpets because the use of the music is not as tongue in cheek. There are so many less repellent characters that have benefitted from Jim Broadbent’s avuncular charisma.
This is just so much wasted potential. At least it looks pretty, but nothing else really worked for me. It should have been so much better, but it just came off as more haphazard and forced than it needed to be. In this case, I’ll keep the jukebox and leave the musical.