Verdi, Vaudeville, Music Videos, and Maharajas: Moulin Rouge! And the Postmodern Musical


Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! is an extravagant musical romance set in turn-of-the-century Paris with anachronistic musical elements and a generous dose of Bollywood aesthetics. It is the story of Christian (Ewan McGregor), a handsome but penniless writer who falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the beautiful, but dying, star courtesan of the Moulin Rouge cabaret. Their courtship and subsequent relationship—which is hidden from Satine’s pimp/boss Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and from the jealous and villainous Duke (Richard Roxburgh)—is developed between the lovers through song as the film’s characters produce a bohemian show-within-a-show called Spectacular Spectacular. Moulin Rouge! takes inspiration from a variety of audio-visual mediums, from classical opera to pop music to Bollywood, and weaves together components from all of them to create a postmodern pastiche that is surprisingly cohesive. This lucid work both celebrates and critiques its disparate influences through juxtaposition of elements, displaying an unexpected amount of intelligence behind the sparkling costumes and sets.

The history of musicals, both on stage and in film, is explored on multiple levels in Moulin Rouge! To start with, the film takes its plot from two operatic sources: Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is about a courtesan suffering from consumption who falls in love with a man but is forced by circumstances and by the machinations of others to push him away, which describes Satine perfectly. La Bohème, another love tragic story, by Giacomo Puccini is about a poor, struggling writer and his group of bohemian friends, which also describes Christian and his assortment of friendly neighbours.

Additionally, Moulin Rouge! alludes to the historical and international background of the musical with examples of “European vaudeville, cabaret culture, stage musicals…operas…[and] Bombay-masala films” (Kinder, “Moulin Rouge” 52) as seen in group dance sequences and during the Bollywood-inspired Spectacular Spectacular. Perhaps the best example of this is the fantasy dance sequence that occurs when Christian sings for Satine for the first time. The elephant-shaped room filled with Indian decorations where they are having a meeting alone transforms into a cloud-covered Paris (with a view of the Eiffel Tower and a glowing moon belting out in the style of Placido Domingo). The two lovers dance and twirl upon the rooftops of Paris à la Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire after a farcical early interaction (Satine thinks Christian is a rich man who has paid to sleep with her) that echoes lowly stage comedies. This scene, among others in the film, demonstrates various types of musical theatre and magnificently blends them together.

By referencing different variations of musicals, Luhrmann shows how these elements and genres “so easily navigate across cultures, periods, and media” (55). The histories of opera and musicals are interconnected, yet opera is customarily seen as high culture whereas musicals are considered low or popular culture (Yang 270). It should be remembered, however, that opera was once a “populist form of entertainment in the nineteenth century” (281). Moulin Rouge! brilliantly shows the connection between opera and musicals and allows them to stand on equal footing. Plot and stylistic elements of both genres are used in harmony and the function of music in the film mediates “between the realism of the narrative and the utopianism of the ‘frozen’ musical numbers that interrupt the storyline,” (272) fitting into both operatic and film musical functions of music. Luhrmann also exposes the workings of all kinds of theatrical productions throughout the film (271), for example, via the opening shot of a vigorously gesticulating conductor and heavy velvet curtains opening up to show the logo and title card sequence, or through the play-within-a-play structure of the film. The audience gets to see the behind-the-scenes work in rehearsal scenes and the politics lurking underneath producing shows like Spectacular Spectacular through interactions between the rich investor Duke and theatre-owner Zidler. The ending of Moulin Rouge! also plays with dual traditions as the “stage story ends happily in the tradition of film musicals, but the backstage story veers in the direction of grand opera to close with the heroine’s tragic demise” (279). Spectacular Spectacular elicits thunderous applause from the diegetic audience, but behind the curtain, Satine and Christian are separated by her sudden death. Thus, opera and musicals are shown to be within the same family and not simply two ends on a spectrum of theatre.

Another prominent motif in Moulin Rouge! is the use of contemporary music. The anachronistic use of music is an “old idea in musicals…[as] the audience had a relationship to the music generally before they went in” (Luhrmann qtd. in Van der Merwe 31). A mix of genres and popular singers—from grunge to dance pop and from Elton John to David Bowie—are featured in Moulin Rouge!; however, not only are they referenced for entertainment but they are given new or additional meaning through the narrative context (Kinder, “Moulin Rouge” 54). One outstanding musical mash-up is “El Tango de Roxanne,” which combines The Police’s “Roxanne” with tango composer Mariano Mores’s “Tanguera” (a song that did not have lyrics originally but had lyrics added in for Moulin Rouge!) Anchored by the dark, passionate mood evoked by the tango, which replaces the original, upbeat guitar and drums, “Roxanne” describes the pain of a man in love with a prostitute yet overcome with jealousy. The blending of the two songs suits the narrative point of the film wherein Christian is consumed by jealousy over Satine’s visit to the Duke while Satine is nearly raped by the villain. Tango dancing has also “long been associated not only with physical passion but also, unfortunately, with prostitution” (Van der Merwe 36), which makes the musical choice doubly appropriate.

This “El Tango de Roxanne” musical sequence is also given music video aesthetics with rapid cutting between the events of Satine’s dinner and that of Christian and the cast of Spectacular Spectacular sitting in wait, creating a breakdown of spatial-temporal continuity supported by sharp visuals. The use of double narrative lines, one for Christian (the singer) and one for Satine (the subject of the song), is a common trope in music videos (Kinder, “Music Video” 8). As the music and story climaxes in this crucial sequence, the editing also speeds up, adding to the tension of the scene. Scenes between Satine and the Duke do not make sense as the two figures seem to sit or stand in different parts of the room from one frame to another, thus the events are implied to be partially imagined by the anxious Christian (Van der Merwe 37).

The strong presence of music video aesthetics is thoroughly explored in Moulin Rouge!. According to Marsha Kinder, music videos utilize variations of three styles: in-concert style, lyrical/visual narrative style, and dream-montage style (“Music Videos” 4-5). Moulin Rouge! utilizes all three forms throughout the film: the final song sung by Satine and Christian during the ending of Spectacular Spectacular is performed concert-style to the patrons of the theatre; the first time Christian writes and sings “Come What May” is in a narrative montage style that displays scenes of the couple’s growing secret love; and the aforementioned tango is arguably a mix of all three as Christian and the nameless Argentinean sing before the Moulin Rouge dancers while plot-heavy scenes between Satine and the Duke (some real and some imagined) are intercut into their performance. Music video aesthetics include using popular music, montages, flashy visuals, creative camera movements, rapid editing, and mixing “film stocks, colours, and speeds” (Calavita 15-16). Luhrmann’s extravagant personal style, which is prominently featured through the elaborate costumes and sets, epic storytelling, deliberate editing, and the pervasive use of coloured mood lighting in the film is arguably in line with the style of music videos.

The final generic influence that is prominently featured in Moulin Rouge! is Bollywood. These kinds of films may appear, to the uninitiated, sensational to the point of artificiality in terms of sets, acting, narrative, and music, but they simply follow a different understanding of realism, having come from a different history and culture than Hollywood (Jaikumar 25). Indian cinema has been influenced by “Sanskrit theatre, Parsi theatre, folk theatre, and Hindu epics,” as demonstrated by “the inalienable relationship between drama, music, and dance…episodic narratives, epic structures, spectacular confrontations, and melodramatic and somatic expressiveness” (25). The effects of the Bollywood system and aesthetics, in terms of film style and narrative, the treatment of music, and even marketing strategies, are prominent in Moulin Rouge! To begin with, there is a strong theme of “selflessness and displays of emotional subjectivity” and of true “Indian-ness,” or in the case of Moulin Rouge!, true “bohemian-ness,” displayed through song (Sarrazin 395). As well, there exists high emotional content, the use of heroes and heroines based on older, classical tropes, clear musical and visual motifs—especially for the heroine, which in Indian films tend to be ankle bells but in Moulin Rouge! are Satine’s affinity for diamonds (396-397)—and the codification of different types of love songs: from private to public, courtship to separation, and solo to group (398-403). The use of pastiche in the film also coincides with the tendency of Bollywood masala films to include “something in the film for everyone…a little action and some romance with a touch of comedy, drama, tragedy, music, and dance” (Jaikumar 26). The marketing of the music of Moulin Rouge! also takes inspiration from Bollywood as the film’s soundtrack was heavily marketed outside of the film, such as the music video for “Lady Marmalade” (Van der Merwe 32).

Minor narrative tropes that Moulin Rouge! takes from Bollywood film include the inability of the villain of the story (i.e. the Duke) to sing because singing is seen as an expression of inner humanity in these kinds of films (Sarrazin 395). There is also the use of the disembodied voice from above, as Christian’s friend Toulouse, dangling unseen in the theatre rafters at the end of the movie, proclaims, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” which then inspires Satine to win back Christian’s love even after they break up in dramatic fashion. This “represents a ‘voice on high’ that possesses superior knowledge…indicates significant moments, such as…transcendent realization of love” in Bollywood films (406). There is, of course, also obvious symbols of India scattered through out the film: the elephant room and Spectacular Spectacular stand out especially.

In terms of both Bollywood and Hollywood influences, Moulin Rouge! still relies on Western tropes. The placement of love songs in Indian films tend to frame them as utopic “fantasies, daydreams, contain[ing] illusion or foreshadowing, and provid[ing] transgressive settings for forbidden sexual union” (Sarrazin 407) whereas Hollywood musical films integrate songs “into the structure of the film as a whole as part of a show, providing commentary, furthering the narrative, setting the scene for future action or enacting critical turning points” (407). For the most part, the songs in Moulin Rouge! serve the narrative and only briefly turn into utopic fantasies, like that of the elephant room becoming the cloudy, Paris cityscape. Another Hollywood trope is the “dual-focus narrative structure represented by a male/female couple each associated with a differing set of values,” which has also begun to seep into Indian films (404). Christian represents the romantic idealist and Satine the practical businesswoman, initially. This conflation of Eastern and Western filmic styles indicate “a new conception of cultural flows, in which cultural goods circulate multi-directionally rather than solely from the West to the rest” (Yang 278). Again, Luhrmann brings together two seemingly opposite systems and weaves the disparate elements together into a rich, unified tapestry.

In conclusion, Moulin Rouge! is a postmodern celebration of musicals from different places and times. From India to America and from operas to music videos, the effusion of audio-visual elements comes together to proclaim the uplifting, bohemian messages of “freedom, beauty, truth, and love,” an apt theme for erasing the hierarchies in genres and different cultural products.

Works Cited/Bibliography/Further Reading:

Calavita, Marco. "’MTV Aesthetics’ at the Movies: Interrogating a Film Criticism Fallacy." Journal of Film and Video 59.3 (2007): 15-31.

Jaikumar, Priya. "Bollywood Spectaculars." World Literature Today 77.3/4 (2003): 24-29.

Kinder, Marsha. "Moulin Rouge." Rev. of Moulin Rouge. Film Quarterly 55.3 (2002): 52-59.

Kinder, Marsha. "Music Video and the Spectator: Television, Ideology and Dream." Film Quarterly 38.1 (1984): 2-15.

Sarrazin, Natalie. "Celluloid Love Songs: Musical "Modus Operandi" and the Dramatic Aesthetics of Romantic Hindi Film." Popular Music 27.3 (2008): 393-411.

Van der Merwe, Ann. "Music, the Musical, and Postmodernism in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge." Music and the Moving Image 3.3 (2010): 31-38.

Yang, Mina. "Moulin Rouge! and the Undoing of Opera." Cambridge Opera Journal 20.3 (2008): 269-82.

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