Los Angeles Times
6 May 2001
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Strictly Luhrmann

The Australian director makes a bold case for the viability of movie musicals in a dizzying blend of pop sensibilities called "Moulin Rouge."

In the words of Australian filmmaker Bazmark Anthony Luhrmann, better known as Baz, it has been "a long time between dreams."

Not since "Grease" in 1978 has a movie musical made enough money for the major Hollywood studios to believe in the genre. Exceptions, especially in Disney's animated stable ("Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," among others), have tantalized the masses while getting them humming a song or two. But live action is another story.

In the 1970s and '80s especially, some genuine oddballs turned up. Among them: Martin Scorse-se's bop-era melodrama, "New York, New York"; Herbert Ross' often astounding "Pennies From Heaven," taken from the BBC miniseries; and Francis Ford Coppola's sort-of-musicals "One From the Heart" and "The Cotton Club."

More recently, we've had such efforts as Alan Parker's "Evita" and, on a comparatively tiny budget, the Björksical "Dancer in the Dark" from writer-director Lars von Trier.

Where will "Moulin Rouge" fall in this multifarious list? Opening the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, with May 18 openings in Los Angeles and New York preceding its June 1 wide release, the $55-million picture is set in an 1899 Paris where everybody sings songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Elton John and David Bowie. It's Luhrmann's third in what he calls his "Red Curtain" trilogy of mood-swinging, consciously theatrical, aggressively stylized movies.

First came "Strictly Ballroom," taken from two earlier Luhrmann stage versions. Then came "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," in which Luhrmann and his steady collaborators—among them his wife, production designer Catherine Martin—presented the Bard's iambic pentameter in a Florida beach town riddled with automatic gunfire.

In "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman portrays Satine, a can-can dancer with serious stage ambitions, as well as an untimely case of consumption. She's the jewel for hire at the title club, the newest-latest in Paris' Montmartre district. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Christian, an idealistic writer who, Orpheus-like, descends into this underworld and falls like a log for Satine.

She has a more influential admirer, however: an oily count played by Richard Roxburgh, representing all philistines with money. Moulin Rouge club impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent) has convinced the count to finance his new show, "Spectacular Spectacular." Christian hops on board as a writer, falling in with the local bohemian circle, whose ringleader is Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo).

Despite its wealth of period detail—"we're kind of research-nutty," Luhrmann says—the movie is no tasteful Merchant Ivory experience. The soundtrack is as diverse—and either exhilarating or chaotic, depending on your taste—as the film's visual attack. The movie is freebasing the entire 20th century, referencing a wild variety of pop tunes. Lyrics to "Silly Love Songs" and "All You Need Is Love" turn up as dialogue. The Police's "Roxanne" is reconceived as a dance-floor tango with a techno backbeat.

The signature theme (heard here in two versions, one by Bowie, the other a Bowie/Massive Attack duet) is the old Eden Ahbez curio "Nature Boy," popularized by Nat King Cole. Its key lyric is, in the 38-year-old Luhrmann's estimation, the "mantra" of his movie: "The greatest thing/You'll ever learn/Is just to love/And be loved in return."

Luhrmann spent the better and worse parts of five years making the film. His father died at the beginning of shooting. Kidman suffered various injuries. Luhrmann himself wondered along the way whether audiences would buy the old breaking-into-song bit.

Clearing the rights to the music was itself a two-year process. Even then, he didn't get everything he wanted: Cat Stevens declined to hand over "Father and Son," as his Muslim beliefs conflicted with the film's subject matter. (Illicit love outside marriage, for starters.)

Luhrmann talked about the film recently, while sitting—and then standing, or pacing, before sitting again—in building No. 29 on the Fox lot, the post-production complex.

The director calls his baby "a comic tragedy." Tiny pause, then he repeats it, to see how it sounds: "A comic tragedy." Or, a tragic-comic musical.

"There aren't a lot of those being made at the moment," he deadpans.

Luhrmann was born in Sydney. His father served in the Navy in Vietnam. Eventually he relocated his wife and four children to remote Heron's Creek, to a farm and petrol station. Baz's mother ran a dress shop and later taught ballroom dance. Eventually his parents split up, his father remarried and his mother returned to Sydney.

Growing up, Luhrmann saw a lot of Elvis Presley musicals on television. He remembers seeing Fred Astaire pictures as well, high among them Vincente Minnelli's classic, "The Band Wagon."

"We lived in the middle of nowhere in a small gas station," he says. "We had a small pig farm but we also got the bulk petrol from a man who ran the local cinema. This man died all of a sudden of a heart attack. My father, who was a photographer and knew something about running a 16-mil projector, could at least thread up a 35-mil projector.

"So he took over the cinema, and the first two movies on the big screen were 'Chrome and Hot Leather,' a biker film—you must catch that sometime—and 'Paint Your Wagon.'" This double-bill actually explains a lot about Luhrmann's aesthetic.

At 17, Luhrmann landed in Sydney and attended the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. He devised a 30-minute early version, for the stage, of what eventually became "Strictly Ballroom." He acted opposite Judy Davis in the 1981 film "Winter of Our Dreams."

Later he scored a major success staging Puccini's "La Boheme," reset in the 1950s. Next spring on Broadway, working with the producers of the "Boheme"-inspired musical "Rent," Luhrmann is planning on restaging "Boheme." His current five-year, multimedia contract with News Corp., which owns Fox, allows Luhrmann various theatrical opportunities. A new stage version of "Strictly Ballroom" is one. A stage version of "Moulin Rouge" is another, if the film goes over.

He says that making "Moulin Rouge" was all about breaking "the code." The code is the language, or rather, the combination and amalgamation of various cinematic languages capturing any given moment, nailing any given musical number.

Here is how he explains "Red Curtain" cinema, which by Luhrmann's definition, embraces the fakery and artifice of stage techniques: "Theatricalized cinema, right? Right. Very basic rules. It is a cinematic form that demands the audience is awakened to the experience—not put into a dream state. We're not looking at naturalism through a keyhole. We're dealing in primary mythologies. The audience knows how the story's going to end when it begins, and the stories are set in heightened creative worlds, and each has a device. In 'Strictly Ballroom,' the device is dance. In 'Romeo + Juliet,' it's iambic pentameter. And in this one it's the music.

"We quote every form: We go from breakout into song, to using the music as a kind of Greek chorus, to certainly opera, to certainly music video. And then we spent a lot of time trying to make it not like a music video, so it's not just like, you know, Madonna singing frozen, surrounded by everything. We use it as internal monologue, so that when Nicole sings 'Today's the day that dreaming ends' and so on, it's without orchestra. We're trying to strip it down there, decode it a bit, deconstruct the songs to make them serve the story."

"Moulin Rouge" doesn't waste any time with exposition. The first five minutes—"really, the first 20," Luhrmann says—are, in his words, "harrowing." Montmartre is literally thrown at us, with an unbalancing blend of film stock, digital effects, film speeds.

"Same with 'Romeo + Juliet,'" he says. "With that one, if I opened at a naturalistic pace, wide shot, car pulls in, guy gets out, 'Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?,' already the audience is ahead of me.

"Instead, I'm asking you to accept a contract, right? I'm asking you to give in to things you're normally going to be prepared for. In 'Moulin Rouge,' with the first 20 minutes, you're hopefully being forced to engage. If you don't listen up, you ain't gonna get it. And you may reject it, that's cool, some people will."

Luhrmann's influences are many. High among them is the Bombay, India, school of schlock known as "Bollywood." In the 1970s particularly, gangster-financed pictures mixed gunplay, philosophy and musical numbers.

"High comedy, ridiculous stand-up comedy, ridiculous stand-up tragedy, breaking into song—no problem," Luhrmann says, breathlessly. "No basic belief there that things have to be thematic. That's just old hat." Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," he hopes, will break down audiences' preconceptions about not just movie musicals, but movies in general.

He is aware that the film—not your typical summer release—is going up against "Pearl Harbor," among other diversions. "Will the whole of America see the film? Who knows? Are there enough people so far who've seen it that believe it works for me to believe that the code is working? Yes. I've been to screenings with some heavy dudes, Bowie and what have you. It's opening at Cannes. These are independent bodies, and there is not a wholesale rejection of the code.

"In fact, I've screened it in Simi Valley, and in Simi Valley, the top 10 favorite scenes are the musical numbers. So they accept it."

Thanks to music video, the culture's suffused with images of people singing and dancing (and, of course, wagging their butts at close camera range). Though Luhrmann has shot music videos, and has clearly borrowed plenty from their far-flung visual techniques, he's hoping that "Moulin Rouge" adds up to more than a crazy-quilt of music video-inspired imagery.

"The people making music video know all about creating heightened worlds, heightened visual language. They don't need to ask anyone if they can jump-cut, or suddenly do a lateral leap, or pull back and show the crew. They freebase on imagery. They are totally contract-free.

"So that's one camp. Now, the folk over here, the [traditional] storytellers, they're subjugated by story, 'believability,' character revelation. When you try to stick a bit of that stuff into other stuff, then you have a problem."

Luhrmann cites the James L. Brooks film "I'll Do Anything," which originally featured characters singing songs by Prince. Test audiences rejected it. The songs were cut.

"What music cinema must be, absolutely," Luhrmann says, "is story and song moving forward together. There's an incredible passion to see a new musical succeed, among the corporations, the audiences, or just these rock stars who are calling me up, saying, 'Look, anything I can do? Cause it's got to work.'" If the film succeeds it certainly wouldn't hurt the songs featured in it.

"If we've got the code even half-right," he says, about to return to post-production tasks of color timing and polishing the special effects, "who knows? Maybe others will come along and write their own code. To me, that'd be a great thing.

"I've got to get on and do other things, but maybe the film musical is off and running."

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic.