The Sun
28 May 2001
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Moulin Rouge a 5-year Project for Luhrmann
by BOB THOMPSON -- Special to The Sun

BEVERLY HILLS -- He's the 21st century post-modern man. He's all that Baz, and then some.

He's Baz Luhrmann, the stylish director who shamelessly mixes and matches pop references new and old at time-warp speed.

He defined happiness and hope that way in Strictly Ballroom. He re-invented a classic with an updated take on tragedy in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.

Now he's bravely tackled the assignment of reformulating the quasi-operatic tragi-comic musical with Moulin Rouge opening June 1 in Toronto.

Set in the can-can 1890s of Paris' Bohemian Montmartre district, Moulin Rouge is also the nightclub where the star courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) falls in love with the struggling writer Christian (Ewan McGregor). It is their love story.

Present and accounted for is the diminutive artist of the period Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo). Despite the familiar lost-love, good-versus-evil devices in the screenplay concocted by Luhrmann and long-time collaborator Craig Pearce, there is little typical in the presentation, which also features the inventive production and costume design of Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin.

Moulin Rouge? Picture a frantic Mad Hatter rave colliding with a cheeky college comedy revue, a hyper-real song-and-dance sketch production interrupting the serious sensations of a deep thinking drama.

"It might be too much for some," admits the amiable and chatty Luhrmann at a L'Ermitage Hotel suite. "But it does get more classical as it goes along. Hopefully, the audience will surrender to the contract I've prepared and just let it happen to them."

Surrendering to the dizzying variety of things that infiltrate Moulin Rouge is made easier by its sometimes subversive wit, most notably presented by the mostly modern songs, which are usually offered with a musical tongue planted firmly in the movie's cheek.

The cast, especially Kidman and McGregor, take turns singing such out-of-era classics as The Sound Of Music, Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, Heroes, Your Song, Roxanne, Like A Virgin and Lady Marmalade. (Marmalade, sung by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink, is already a No. 1 hit). Most of the songwriters were enthusiastic about getting their tunes involved from David Bowie to U2's Bono.

References, both movie and music, are everywhere. "There are hundreds, from Busby Berkeley to hip hop," says Luhrmann proudly. "It's a simple plot really, but the film can be understood on different levels as it wildly gear changes, going from high comedy to high tragedy."

In keeping with the Luhrmann film history, there is a "healthy sense of irony" popping up as well.

"If one is to look at Your Song," he says of the Elton John '70s hit, "you understand that it is a great song, but it's also very cheesy, and could be played very easily in a piano bar. I guess you could say in Moulin Rouge we celebrate the coolness in cheesiness."

He didn't always. A more seriously bent avant garde type, Luhrmann grew up in the isolated town of Herons Creek, New South Wales. His mother owned a no frills dress shop, his father -- who sadly died during the filming of Moulin Rouge --ran a gas station.

When Luhrmann decided to become an actor it was greeted with suspicion and just a little bit of disdain by his conservative family. Luhrmann says that back then he saw himself as an exclusive thinking and remarkably cool Bohemian.

"When I was in drama school in Sydney," he recalls, "as long as my mother didn't understand what the work was, I thought I was on the right track. Y'know the more obscure the better."

Acting wasn't his thing though. Neither was taking himself too seriously. He quit acting and started directing theatre pieces with an eye for put on. Although, his claim to acting fame was co-starring with Judy Davis in 1981's The Winter Of Our Dreams, he shifted to directing for good soon after, mounting an acclaimed version of La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House.

"I realized soon enough in movies that your audience is everyone from children to the Queen of England," he suggests, "so you've got to have layering that can span that."

Luhrmann worked for five years on Moulin Rouge, including painstaking pre-production, the unheard of six-months rehearsal and the grueling filming, all in and around his Sydney "circus family" base, a mansion on the nicer side of town.

"I got offered a lot of money to come to L. A.," he says. "I named my price another way. It was build me a studio in Sydney, let me work out of Australia, and get creative control of my films."

Which meant he could hire Kidman -- "A real gem," he says -- and McGregor -- "My secret weapon and a big surprise," -- to be showcased in a twisted movie musical.

Movie audiences across North America have yet to decide. Luhrmann is anxious, but not overly concerned about Moulin Rouge's future.

"The basic rule is that the audience has to have a relationship with what's going on," he says. "You just set up the deal with the audience and follow through with them."

So he agrees Moulin Rouge is a major departure, and he agrees musicals have become passe.

"But you've got trouble if you start thinking there's only one way to cha-cha-cha," Luhrmann says.

Besides, the film means much more to the director than a benchmark for his talents. "Moulin Rouge is where I am in my life," he says philosophically.

"I'm showing triumph, the search for hope and joy and the loss of loved ones, while trying to measure and understand the depth of all of them."

Yet another layer of his multi-layered movie cake.