At the very first Moulin Rouge test screening, 20th Century Fox did not tell the audience that the film was a musical. Studio executives were worried. Looking back, it feels impossible that anyone would have worried about Moulin Rouge. It was the final installment of Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy”; part one and two were the successful Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Romeo + Juliet (1996). Still fear about the film’s reception abounded. “We weren’t allowed to use the ‘M’ word, let alone the ‘O’ word, opera,” said Luhrmann.
The big-budget movie musical had been more-or-less dead for the better part of thirty years. Following Hello, Dolly!, the 1969 Barbara Streisand bomb, musicals existed as Bob Fosse countercultural films (Cabaret and All That Jazz), cult objects (The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors), and animated family-family films (Anastasia and Aladdin). Attempts had been made to revitalise the big-budget movie-musical, but these resulted in a string of high-profile bombs (The Pirates of Penzance and Newsies).
Add to that Luhrmann’s aesthetic. Popular as it was, it had started coming under fire from critics: Roger Ebert was quick to reproach Luhrmann’s flashiness, viewing it as a crutch for his shaky narrative trappings. There was weariness amongst the public too: Romeo + Juliet’s biggest fanbase was teenage girls, a demographic whose tastes have been unfairly maligned for ages. To make a joke at their expense was to make a joke at Romeo + Juliet’s expense, criticising the stylistic nature of the film as well as its romantic melodrama.
Moulin Rouge was taking that style and melodrama, turning the dial up as far as it could go, and filtering it through the riskiest genre a director could pick: musicals. To top it off, the shoot had run over-budget and over-schedule with multiple injuries on-set, making Moulin Rouge a gamble to the tune of $52 million.
When it came time to screen Moulin Rouge for a test audience, producers decided to keep the specifics close to their chest. The less the test audience knew about the film, the more receptive they would (hopefully) be to the experience. And experience is the right word.
Moulin Rouge! is to musicals what The Matrix is to action films: an expansion of visual grammar. Luhrmann collides seemingly disparate styles — Bollywood, opera, vaudeville, the myth of Orpheus, The Lady of the Camellias — and stirs them all together in a stew of anachronism, seasoned with an inordinate amount of glitter. The film is set in turn of the century Paris but is more aesthetically reminiscent of a carnival. The music, meanwhile, is mostly pop hits from the 1970s and 1980s. The makeup and costuming only push the film further away from realism. Historical accuracy is abandoned in the name of creating an arresting visual style. Individual elements are period-accurate, but everything is accentuated to a point where it feels like history by way of a drag show.
What’s most impressive about the film style is not the sheer number of influences on display, nor the breadth of places Luhrmann is pulling them from: it’s how seamlessly he makes them fit together. Take the scene where the film’s protagonist, Christian (Ewan McGregor, never more swoon-worthy), enters the Moulin Rouge for the first time. About twelve minutes long, the sequence is a whirlwind of motion and tonal shifts. ‘Lady Marmalade’ is mashed up with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, which is mashed up again with an original rap, performed by the Moulin Rouge’s owner Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent in peak camp). Then we pivot into the introduction of Satine (the iconic Nicole Kidman), who performs ‘Sparkling Diamonds’ (A Madonna/Marilyn Monroe mashup) while swinging from a trapeze. All the while the camera is in constant motion, the editing is frantic, and the visuals dense; blink and you miss it references abound. Never does it feel like the production is at risk of collapsing in on itself: no influence dominates the others; the tonal shifts, while rapid, feel organic given the film’s internal logic; and the anachronisms never pull you out of the film. Luhrmann sidesteps cacophony for a bombastic kind of harmony.
Of course, the bombast is not for everyone. Moulin Rouge is famously a love-it-or-hate-it film; a sentiment which has been true since its first test screening. The audience was split in two. Many were dissatisfied by the film, overwhelmed by the style, and annoyed — above all else — that it was a musical. They walked out midway through the screening. Among the members who stayed, the reception was strong. There was a consensus, among both the producers and the remaining test audience members, that Moulin Rouge! was a special film. And to this day, that is still the case. Many directors have attempted to replicate elements of Moulin Rouge, but in each case, the final result is less replication and more imitation.
Take the ‘El Tango De Roxanne’ sequence. Arguably the film’s most iconic musical number, it inspired similar sequences in several musicals that followed. Chicago, which began filming during the height of Moulin Rouge!’s awards campaign, visually echoes the red/blue colour palette of ‘El Tango De Roxanne’ during its own tango number, ‘Cell Block Tango.’ Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera meanwhile, inserts tango dancers into the background of ‘The Point of No Return’, hoping to replicate the number’s romantic tension. Neither of these sequences fully capture the original number’s verve. ‘Cell Block Tango’ succeeds on the strength of Bob Fosse’s original composition and choreography; the weakest moments are the most visually busy, the ones most like Moulin Rouge. ‘The Point of No Return’, meanwhile, flounders completely. Schumacher undermines the intimacy of the number by inserting tango dancers, but the energy level is too low to justify the intensity the tango dancers bring.
Commercially, attempts were made to replicate Moulin Rouge too. Going on wide release in June 2001, the film was a sleeper hit; while its opening weekend was disappointing, word-of-mouth kept audiences coming. By the end of the year, it was still in theatres, so 20th Century Fox decided to throw together a last-minute awards campaign. The film continued its run through awards season, proving a favourite at the Golden Globes, where it won Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, and at the Academy Awards, where it netted eight nominations, including Best Picture. It was the first musical in ten years to score a Best Picture nomination (the previous being Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast) and the first live-action musical to score the nomination since All That Jazz in 1979. After decades of the musical being considered a dead genre, it was revitalised as an awards player.