Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent
2010’s American Idiot, 2009’s Rock of Ages, 2006’s Jersey Boys, 2003’s Movin’ Out. 2003’s The Boy from Oz. All Best Musical nominees at the Tony Awards in the past ten years. One winner in the bunch (Jersey Boys). All jukebox musicals. On television, Glee and Smash (more the former than the latter) have largely conformed to this most dubious of genres, which even at its best is essentially a hodgepodge of repackaged favorites. For this purposeful dearth of creative action, the jukebox musical deserves every piece of criticism and ill-favored judgment that it gets.
Jukebox musicals have historically favored the cinema, typically as vanity pieces for the musical artist in question; The Beatles come to mind. In the past decade or so, recognizing just how easy it is to extort people to hear good singers do covers no matter how flimsy the plot is, we’ve seen a positive (or maybe it’s a negative) explosion of these things. Maybe we should blame 1999’s Mamma Mia!. Or maybe we should blame Moulin Rouge!. Or maybe we should blame people who put exclamation points at the end of their shows’ names, because that’s already making me batty. (Lookin’ at you, Oklahoma! and Fiorello!.)
The funny thing about Moulin Rouge! is that it’s actually really good. It’s streets ahead of the jukebox musicals which would follow in its footsteps. And what makes Moulin Rouge! good—what makes it the most important jukebox musical in film/theatre history—is what it doesn’t have in common with the rest of them.
If you look at every other jukebox musical I’ve mentioned already (and there are eight, plus a couple tacit ones), only three of them don’t explicitly focus on a particular artist’s oeuvre; the only non-serialized one to do so is Rock of Ages. Moulin Rouge! borrows from just about everyone. “Elephant Love Medley” has bits and pieces of twelve songs from eleven and a half different artists (we have a Beatles song and a Wings song, so whatever math you’re interested in doing there is fine with me), and that takes up about four minutes of the movie. It took Luhrmann a couple years to get the rights to use all of the songs that show up in the movie. The complete list of songs that poke their heads into Moulin Rouge! is staggering in terms of just how many there are, the styles adapted, the different time periods represented.
It’s also the reason why the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, built in the last days before the iTunesification of pop music, are so maddening for buyers (I’m using that in the plural because I know that I’m not the only person who’s been sort of displeased with the offerings on that soundtrack). It’s never going to quite cover everything we liked hearing in the movie. Compare that to Glee, which intentionally sells everything that’s ever been on the show and intentionally throws the latest Top 40 into episodes. We’re getting a very strong sense of where the interest is for both of those products.
Moulin Rouge! certainly goes out of its way to spotlight some of the songs that they’re covering (“Your Song,” “Roxanne,” “Like a Virgin”). And yet everything is assimilated with a level of neatness that very few jukebox musicals manage: to be perfectly honest, Mamma Mia! probably comes about as close as any other jukebox musical (second to Moulin Rouge!, of course) to integrating the songs into the universe that the musical has created; as I’ve noted already, Mamma Mia! also predates Moulin Rouge! (and maybe I can blame them for these sufferin’ exclamation points).
Moulin Rouge! clearly had its plot first: romantic would-be writer comes to fin-de-siécle Paris, falls in love with a prostitute/performer he can never fully trust, realizes the strength of their love as she dies in his arms. I mean, we aren’t exactly creating the greatest plot of all time here, but we are making a plot in which characters are established as certain types (Satine as the hooker with a heart of gold, the Duke as an emblem of capitalist envy, Zidler as the unlikely yet touching paternal figure, etc.), which is a useful shortcut for a movie this busy. More importantly, they act with reasonable consistency based on the motivations they’ve been given; the rules of the universe aren’t broken. In short, one of the reasons that Moulin Rouge! works and other jukebox musicals don’t is because Moulin Rouge! has a plot and characters the audience can buy into. Glee did that for about ten episodes, with a couple of odd lapses, and then the lapses became the norm. When a jukebox musical’s raison d’être is its jukebox, then it’s absolutely going to fail in terms of overall quality.
I touched on a couple of things before. One of those is the concept of the film’s universe, and the other is how Moulin Rouge! foregrounds a few of its covers. I could talk about “Your Song” or “Like a Virgin” here (and I actually feel kind of guilty for not doing this with “Like a Virgin,” which is hysterical), but this doesn’t get any more clear than in the song called “El Tango de Roxanne.” Short of “Come What May” (and yeah, getting to that), “El Tango de Roxanne” is really the selling point for Moulin Rouge!. It also happens to be a near-perfect marriage of universe and how the jukebox isn’t necessarily an issue. This is where you might want to open up the clip itself on Señor YouTube.
The Narcoleptic Argentinian is taking center stage at the start, perhaps literally, perhaps he’s only as center stage as someone can be in a Luhrmann movie. “We have a dance! In the brothels of Buenos Aires! Tells the story! Of a prostitute! And a man! Who falls in love! With her.” I mean, it takes almost a minute to get all of that in. But Luhrmann is doing more than just focusing on the Narcoleptic Argentinian, who is pretty emblematic of the Moulin Rouge! universe (amusing, flamboyant, notes of deep underlying sadness). Luhrmann’s also quickly setting up establishing shot after establishing shot. We know this room. This room, the theater of the Moulin Rouge, is almost as holy a locus of frame as the Kit Kat Klub. We’re seeing bits and pieces of it, we’re seeing the various members of the team putting on Spectacular Spectacular, we’re noting characters. And then, we’re watching Satine remove those long gloves of hers at the Duke’s castle. Rapidfire shots, mimicking the way that knowledge is perhaps even faster than the speed of light. Desire leads to passion leads to suspicion leads to jealousy, anger, betrayal. “Without trust, there is no love…jealousy, yes, jealousy will drive you—mad!” And the madness/anger, in a really fine piece of editing, emanates from the Narcoleptic Argentinian and then, in two close-ups, to Christian. I mean, we’ve basically summed up the movie at this point. We have completely set up the Moulin Rouge! universe. We haven’t been subtle. We have, however, reminded ourselves just where we are. We know who’s in charge: it’s not the jukebox, it’s the plot. Took two minutes of work.
Then, and only then, can we get to the jukebox, as the Narcoleptic Argentinian bellows, “Roooooxanne.” And then we know, more or less, what’s going to happen next. But we also know that the tango frame has itself been placed within the frame of the Moulin Rouge. We can see that this is not your average Police cover band: this is not Scrantonicity’s “Roxanne,” it’s a “Roxanne” which has the tempo and strings to let you know that a Narcoleptic Argentinian, not Sting, is doing this.
And doesn’t it get better than that? The best parts of the song are Christian’s, which as far as I know are original. He’s pulling another layer on top of the “I wish I could trust the sex worker” song. We’re not relying on our knowledge of “Roxanne” to hold the scene together, we’re relying on something like original lyrics. And for this, the part of the film that actually had me shaking after I saw it for the first time, why would you want to entrust your emotional daggers to someone else? Luhrmann realizes, and so rightly, that it’s better to be in charge of which knives you want to throw.
When you’re making a jukebox musical, the temptation is always to be too much in the world of the jukebox itself. It’s tempting to find ways to just follow the music instead of following the plot. Sacrificing consistent or at least understandable character motivation for the chance to fit in another song. La belle Jukebox sans merci hath thee in thrall, so to speak. And yet “El Tango de Roxanne” doesn’t do those things. We have this clear vision of how the plot needs Christian to find a way to express all of his doubt, of how his friends consistently know what’s better for him than he does, of how Satine tries again and again to perform acts of self-sacrifice only to see them ruined, of just how jealous the Duke is, of the solidarity of the Moulin Rouge cast and crew.
Four and a half minutes into “El Tango de Roxanne,” we get to see a glimmer of “Come What May.” It cuts into the jukebox so effectively in tone, volume, sentiment that we (and heck, the movie itself), practically comes to a dead stop. And in the end, even more than the Screenwriting 101 stuff, the secret of a jukebox musical is that its best, most powerful, most memorable song actually needs to be original.
“Come What May” is, for people within three or four years of me on either side, the epitome of “love song.” It’s instantly recognizable. It’s really pretty. The song itself almost doesn’t fit into the movie. The film is largely fast-paced, in-your-face, purposefully transitive. And “Come What May” takes a few minutes to get to its climax. There’s so little about that song that’s immediate—the most famous part of it is the “Come what may, come what may, I will love you until my dying day.” Though that day is creeping up pretty hard on Satine throughout the film, the sentiment of permanence remains. The Bohemians are drinking absinthe and partying way too much to ensure a long life; the Moulin Rouge performers are, in many ways, just asking to be struck down by some disease. The patrons are singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Heck, fin-de-siécle Paris itself couldn’t last. We know that their belle époque is coming to an end in fifteen years once Princip assassinates Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. But “Come What May” manages to cut through all of that speed, that rapidity with a slow gentleness absent from much of the rest of the film. I think that, as much as the prettiness or cutesiness of “Come What May,” is the reason why it stands out so much in a jukebox musical. Originality is hard to come by; it’s harder to come by in a jukebox musical; yet, there it is.
Moulin Rouge! can’t be duplicated effectively; we know that because virtually every other jukebox musical that’s come in the past decade has been mediocre at best on aggregate. Other attempts at jukebox musicals just feel completely contrived. Or they just fail at the craft of writing. Or the jukebox itself becomes more appealing than putting out a quality product. Moulin Rouge! manages to cut through the stereotypes that really didn’t exist yet, and in the end that’s why it gets to be counted as the best, by far, of a bad bunch.