3 September 2001
Pop goes the movie
Moulin Rouge uses chart hits the way other films use plot and character. Its music director tells Adam Sweeting about his two thrilling, exhausting years with Baz Luhrmann
by Adam Sweeting
If Baz Lurhmann's Strictly Ballroom was high camp, and his film Romeo + Juliet was the Bard spewed out of a post-MTV Electric Kool-Aid blender, there aren't enough adjectives in the world to describe Moulin Rouge. A 115-minute barrage of digital effects, frantic dance routines, freakish sets and costumes from a galaxy far, far away, the film leaves you feeling simultaneously drained and saturated. After its American release in the spring, the critics abandoned the middle ground - they either thought Luhrmann had created a cinematic miracle, or, like USA Today's Mike Clark, considered it "a spectacularly awful movie".
Music has been central to every project Luhrmann has undertaken, either in film or in his production work for Australian Opera - and in Moulin Rouge he has shovelled so much into the soundtrack that it virtually explodes under the pressure. For music director Marius DeVries, the project represented two of the most gruelling and high-pressure years of his life.
"It's an all-consuming and exhausting experience working with Baz," says DeVries, a slender figure whose fair hair and casually chic clothes suggest echoes of one of his idols, David Bowie. "The level of commitment that Moulin Rouge demanded was quite difficult for me in terms of what it's done to my personal life and what it's done to my career elsewhere. I think it took a big chunk out of it, though it's been hearteningly easy to come back and step back into the business."
The business, that is, of record producer and songwriter, in which DeVries can boast some impressive credits. He worked on Madonna's albums Ray Of Light and Bedtime Stories, on Mel C's Northern Star, and on Björk's Post and Debut. He collaborated with Bono, Nellee Hooper and the Edge on Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me, the theme song from Batman Forever. He even did a couple of singles with Bowie, Seven and Survive, though he never met the Thin White fellow - they swapped ideas across the internet while Marius was enduring two years of brainstorming madness in Sydney for Moulin Rouge. But having also worked on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, shouldn't he have been prepared for Luhrmania?
"One of the roles that fell to me on Romeo + Juliet was to be the organising force of some fairly disparate elements," he explains, "and Baz came to me again because he recognised that was a job that needed doing again on Moulin Rouge - but in spades. Some of the things that have come to fruition on Moulin were there embryonically on Romeo, the way some of the songs on the soundtrack were used in place of a traditional score. It was clear we were going to go a lot further and it was going to get a lot more complex. It was exhilarating and thrilling, but exhausting."
The organising principle, or exasperating gimmick if you prefer, of Moulin Rouge is to tell a story set in Paris in 1900 using famous pop songs from the latter part of the 20th century. The plot centres around Ewan McGregor's naive and romantic writer Christian, a man obsessed with ideals of truth, beauty and love, and his passion for Nicole Kidman's consumptive courtesan Satine. It seems to have been cobbled together from bits of La Bohème and La Travi ata (Luhrmann has already directed La Bohème on stage and on screen, and has plans to take it to Broadway).
The script offers hardly any insights into what the characters think or feel. They are offered up as stereotypes, their emotions switched on and off by the soundtrack's seething bouillabaisse of rearranged, restyled and mutated pop songs. Instead of an aria by Verdi or Puccini, you get Elton John's Your Song, or Marc Bolan's Children of the Revolution, or even a refrain from The Sound of Music. But not as you've ever heard them before. "There's not much in the way of traditional character development, and some people have pointed this out," admits DeVries. "Baz never tried to write a script that would be full of deep emotional resonances. I think he wanted a plot that was almost disarmingly simplistic, and then he wanted to make it work as a spectacle and the music to give it its heart."
Luhrmann and his collaborators didn't just want to shoehorn a bunch of famous pop performances into the movie. Their mission was to transform their raw material into something unmistakably Luhrmann-esque.
"Baz wanted to use famous songs rather than a composed set of new songs, but he wanted to create a musical that had at least one foot in the classic 1950s break-into-song musical genre," says DeVries. "The sensibility of it would always be contemporary, so every time we took one of these famous pieces of music, we would attempt to reinvent it in a way that would be surprising and hopefully astonishing to the audience. The danger is that all these songs have pre-existing associations for each member of the audience, and this is where the business of reinterpreting them bravely comes in. The first reaction is 'Oh, it's Like a Virgin', then that's immediately followed by 'My God, look what they've done to it!' and that's what brings you back into the world of the movie."
Obtaining permission to use all this material was a feat in itself. "We had to get licences for the songs in such a way that we could use them in medleys, change the lyrics, put them in the mouths of circus freaks, and reinvent them in ways that make them ludicrous," DeVries says. "Mostly it's a testament to Baz's charisma and powers of persuasion. He could seduce you into doing anything if he felt it was the right thing for his movie. A very dangerous man."
Restraint and good taste are terms Luhrmann isn't familiar with, and if the movie can be visually diverting, the overblown bombast applied to most of the tracks makes it nearly impossible to sit through the soundtrack album. Even Nicole Kidman's plaintive rendition of One Day I'll Fly Away is swiftly overwhelmed by a tumultuous orchestral climax, with massed choirs ladled on top. Then there are such monstrous musical hybrids as a tango version of Roxanne and the Elephant Love Medley, which scoops together bits of All You Need Is Love, One More Night, Up Where We Belong, Heroes and a few more.
Having made his contributions, DeVries then had to stand back and let Luhrmann have his way with the songs. "When you hand over your music to a director, that is not the end of the process," he says. "You're giving him a tool which he has to feel free to manipulate and do what he needs to do."
And would DeVries work with Luhrmann again? "Yeah, just give me a year's therapy."
• Moulin Rouge opens on Friday. The soundtrack album is on Interscope Records.