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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) – The 20th Anniversary

Australian director, writer and producer Baz Luhrmann has dabbled in all areas of the entertainment industry including: film, television, opera, theatre, music and recording industries. He is regarded by many as an auteur for his distinct recognizable style and deep involvement in the writing, directing, design and musical components to all his films. I personally love Luhrman as a filmmaker and I’m a fan of his films, with “Australia” (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman) is my favorite of his works. But to look at his career it’s almost unbelievable that his third feature film, “Moulin Rouge!” is only one of his five directorial credits. 

“Moulin Rouge!” premiered in theaters 20 years ago on June 1st, 2001. The visionary director’s cult romantic musical spectacle had wowed audiences with its lavish costumes, set pieces, its chart-topping soundtrack single (“Lady Marmalade”) and its star-studded cast. “Moulin Rouge!” is all style, over-the-top spectacle and is daring in its vision, but remains wildly original.

Luhrmann took a risk in making a musical in the 2000’s. A time when action thrillers, gross-out comedies and dramas were ruling the box office. Luhrmann felt pressure to resurrect the genre and he knew it would be a grueling process in making a movie of this scope. “Moulin Rouge!” seemed like the last of its kind, the final gasp of the campy Technicolor spectacles from Hollywood. 

With “Moulin Rouge!”, Luhrmann succeeded in ending a decades long drought of musical films being passed up for Oscar nominations. “Moulin Rouge!” was nominated for a total of eight nominations at the 2002 ceremony including: Best Picture, Best Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Make Up and Best Sound. It took home two awards for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Controversially, Luhrmann did not receive a Best Director nomination. 

“Moulin Rouge!” had the prestigious honor of being the opening film at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. It garnered box office success and a sustained fandom, while receiving positive critical reviews. But Luhrmann’s film, looked like it had fiasco written all over it. There were delays, rewrites, along with inspired decisions and technological wizardry, all of which eventually came together to create the film we know it as today. 

The Australian filmmaker, was still riding high off the success of his first two films “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo + Juliet”. With the release of “Moulin Rouge!”, Luhrmann was looking to close out his Red Curtain Trilogy on a successful note. But, yet neither of his lead actors had ever starred in a full-scale musical before. “Moulin Rouge!” featured popular, well-known songs throughout, featuring elements of comedy, tragedy, music and love.

The real Moulin Rouge is located close to Montmartre in the Paris district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, it is distinctly marked by the red windmill located on its rooftop. The original house, which burned down in 1915, was co-founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller, who also owned the Paris Olympia.

Moulin Rouge is best known to be the birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. Originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated from the site, the can-can dance revue evolved into a form of entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe. Today, the Moulin Rouge serves as a tourist attraction, offering musical dance entertainment for visitors from around the world. It was the first building in Paris to have electricity, which powered its dazzling, lighted facade. Till this day, the club’s decor still remains intact. 

Luhrmann’s film all started with it’s co-writer Craig Pearce and production designer Catherine Martin (director Baz Luhrmann’s wife), who both journeyed to Paris to write the films story and conduct a meticulous historical research of the end of the twentieth century Montmartre. To find ways to depict 19th century Paris and the Moulin Rouge as it felt to its audience back then. Being at the cutting edge of sex, music, dance, theater and modern thinking – the filmmakers immersed themselves in the neighborhood, venues and culture of their story. 

They researched everything from the can-can to Toulouse-Lautrec (an important player in their story), to the writers and journalists who recorded their breathless first-hand accounts of the late nineteenth century nightclub. “The Moulin Rouge was the equivalent of Studio 54 in New York during the late ’70s, a place where the rich and the powerful can mix with the young, the beautiful and the penniless”, states co-writer Craig Pearce. “And that’s exactly the thought that motivated (Moulin Rouge impresario) Zidler. He and Joseph Oller built a ‘Palace of Women’ based on a dance craze, the can-can, which was a kind of sexually confronting strip tease”. 

While Luhrmann and Pearce continued to work on the screenplay, production designer Catherine Martin took all the information and experiences they had acquired in Paris and turned them into designs for the film. Rather than recreating historical fact, Martin worked from Luhrmann’s imperative to create a heightened world. “We always start pedantically, recreate precisely, then adapt and change to serve the story”, explains CM. “It’s about manipulating the elements that existed in their world, so they read now, so that a modern audience can access this period world. Baz wanted us to create a world in a style he dubbed ‘real artificiality’. A created Paris in which the musical of his invention would sit comfortably. A place where breaking out in song would feel natural”. 

The “Red Curtain” style was instrumental in creating this world. Luhrmann said: “One of the characteristics of the ‘Red Curtain’ films is the use of classic cinema references. In ‘Moulin Rouge’ we have utilized this mechanism both in making reference to classic hair styles and costume silhouettes of the great divas of the ’40s and ’50s. Marlene Dietrich, with a sprinkle of ‘Cabaret’ and a nod to Rita Hayworth in ‘Gilda’. It is this constant referencing and re-referencing that we hope allows a modern audience to decode the historical setting. The ease with which the audience understands the story is crucial. In this musical we are not revealing the characters or plot slowly and invisibly, but quickly and overtly”. 

As key as the production design, costume design, hair and make up are to the film. None was more essential than the music and songs that proved to be critical to both the characters and story. But creating “Moulin Rouge!” as a musical had presented Baz Luhrmann with a daunting challenge. Since musicals have long been out of fashion, he had to devise new ways to reach the contemporary audience. His key play was to have the actors sing the story. 

Co-writer Craig Pearce explains: “As writers, we’re intent on making the songs not simply an adornment, but integral to the story telling, so that there is no better way to convey a story point than with a number. As a result, we deal in big, strong gestures. The scenes have to build to such an extent, with the characters getting so high on the energy, that they can’t do anything else but sing!”.

Producer Fred Baron notes that Luhrmann has created nothing less than a new kind of musical. Baz Luhrmann creates a new kind of musical with “Moulin Rouge!”. Luhrmann takes the classic musical, but re-mixes it into a new form. Traditionally in a Hollywood musical the actor(s) breaks into a song and lip sync’ to a pre-recorded track. The actors of “Moulin Rouge!”, on the other hand had to sing it live on camera. Having the actors sing live, lets Luhrmann create the feeling that the singing is the acting and so the viewer isn’t leaving the world of the story behind.

Luhrmann had to find two lead stars, who were first and foremost actors, but actors that could also sing. When casting director Ronna Kress and Luhrmann saw Nicole Kidman perform on Broadway in a play called “The Blue Room”, they were convinced they had found the actress to play Satine. Nicole Kidman suffered multiple injuries on set including a torn knee cartilage resulting from a fall during the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence. This is one of three injuries which caused a delay in the film, as well as resulted in Kidman having to pull out of David Fincher’s film “Panic Room” (2002).

Kidman had also injured her ribs twice while filming one of the more complicated dance sequences and also suffered from a torn knee cartilage resulting from a fall during the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production song. She also stated in an interview with UK host Graham Norton that she broke a rib while getting into a corset, by tightening it as much as possible to achieve an 18-inch waist.

Baz Luhrmann says “Moulin Rouge!” came at a trying time for him, with his father dying on the first day of films shooting. A then 33 year-old Kidman, was also suffering personal setbacks of her own. Having to navigate, one of the most high-profile Hollywood splits ever from her husband Tom Cruise.“Moulin Rouge!” had became Luhrmann and Kidman’s combined fixation. 

*Quick Fun Fact: The diamond necklace worn by Nicole Kidman in the “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” was a 134 carats and designed by Stefano Canturi, a Sydney jeweler who was present during the scenes it was used in. Additionally, since the necklace gets torn off in the film, a “stunt double” was made, which featured crystal instead of diamond. While this crystal version was displayed for a public jewelry exhibit, the diamond version is in the hands of a private collector and is said to be worth $3 million.

At one point singer Courtney Love was even considered for the role of Satine, but this didn’t come to pass. Love’s involvement was two-fold, as she also granted Luhrmann permission to use Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the film. A hefty sum of $125,000 was paid to use the song that once originally had Marilyn Manson singing it. One of the reasons Love approved the use of the song, was that having Manson sing it, didn’t sit well with Love due to their infamous feud. It was rerecorded just before the film’s wide release.

To cast the role of Christian. The Australian director called upon fellow Aussie actor Heath Ledger, who was 21 at the time. It turned out that Ledger and Kidman really worked together. But ultimately Luhrmann, thought Heath was just too young in the end for the character. When Ledger didn’t work out, Luhrmann knew he needed to get McGregor, who was 30 at the time. Luhrmann had long wanted to work with Ewan McGregor and the British actor’s formidable acting skills and surprising singing talents is what won him the role.

McGregor embraced the challenges of performing in a musical, saying: “I’ve been waiting all my life to do this kind of singing and dancing. I was musical at school and used to dance when I was a kid. And I’ve always had a passion for the old forties musicals. I drove everyone nuts on the set of ‘Moulin Rouge’ because I was too excited, but I just felt that nobody’s done this for years. Not like this. I’ve never played a character more about love in my life. He’s just absolutely unashamedly driven by love: after he meets Satine, she’s everything he talks about. Nothing else matters but love”. 

“I went and saw Ewan and worked with him vocally and I went and saw Nicole and I worked with her vocally and I put them together in my head”, Luhrmann said. “The real moment was when they met in Sydney and we did the first day of rehearsals. I’ve got a video of them doing scenes in Iona (Luhrmann’s Darlinghurst home). They were walking around, going into the elephant and they were hysterical and wonderfully matched. They were great. He (McGregor) was just the perfect partner for Nicole. Getting the right chemical equation between two leads in a romantic relationship is really important. You can’t fix that if you get it wrong”. 

There was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was the biggest heartthrob in Hollywood and during this time, he managed to star as Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s second film, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”. Just a year later, he would star in James Cameron’s “Titanic”, still one of the most successful movies ever made. But due to being friends with Luhrmann, DiCaprio decided to try his luck and audition for the lead role as Christian. Only problem was Leo couldn’t sing: “I have a pretty atrocious voice”, said DiCaprio. As he tells it, a meeting with Luhrmann, where they sang a song over piano, didn’t end too well, especially when he hit a high note and director Luhrmann said to him “I don’t know if this conversation should continue”.

Production began on “Moulin Rouge” in November of 1999 and was completed in May 2000,with a budget of $50 million. Filming generally went smoothly, with the exception of Nicole Kidman’s injuries on set. The production also overran in its shooting schedule and had to be out of the Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia to make way for “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones” (in which McGregor also starred). This necessitated some pick-up shots being filmed in Madrid.

Though entirely set in Paris, “Moulin Rouge!” was shot over five sound stages at Fox Studios Australia. “Moulin Rouge!” is intentionally theatrical and to achieve that, lavish sets were recreated and reinterpreted. Production Designer Catherine Martin, set decorator Brigitte Broch and supervising art director Ian Gracie oversaw a vast array of designers, sculptors, graphic designers, model makers and scenic artists who meticulously manufactured the sets.

One of the many striking sets was an interpretation of the Moulin Rouge’s three-story, paper-maché elephant that contained an Arabian-themed gentlemen’s club in its belly. For the cinematic incarnation, the elephant houses Satine’s Red Room, where the courtesan seduces Christian, mistaking the young poet for the wealthy Duke. Shooting requirements necessitated the construction of several different elephant sets, including a forehead and back, designed at ground level for the lovers to sing atop. The head and belly housed the interior action. 

The production built a full-scale elephant on a steel frame, which they then covered in polystyrene to stand in the garden, as well as a model built to one-fifth scale. The filmmakers also built one-fifth scale models of the Moulin Rouge and other sets, all of which contributed to the desired feel of a created world. Luhrmann wanted a completeness to the world and every design detail put into the film reinforced this.

Veteran director of photography Donald M. McAlpine, who previously worked with Luhrmann on “Romeo + Juliet”, was a close collaborator with Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin to create the heightened world of “Moulin Rouge!”. The electricity of Moulin Rouge was new to turn of the century Paris, a novelty for which McAlpine tried to find a modern equivalent. The crew assumed that when people saw electricity back then, that they were seeing the brightest, most glittering, most wonderful thing to ever had ever happened. So they interpreted that time into their own. As far as the crew were concerned, the lighting couldn’t be over the top. The heightened lighting befits the Moulin Rouge in all glamour.

Costume designers Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie designed over four hundred costumes for the films principals, dancers and extras. Initially, Catherine found the idea of designing costumes for “Moulin Rouge!”, troubling to say the least. But Catherine approached the costumes much as she had the production design: the costumes would reflect the sensationalism and shock of the Moulin Rouge, but for today’s audiences. Catherine and Strathie aimed to capture a fundamental tension between period accuracy and creating a world that was seductive, sexy and even a little shocking to the contemporary eye.

For the dancers, Catherine and Strathie started with the idea that the can-can was incredibly shocking and sexy, revealing “a world of entertainment under women’s dresses”. To capture that world, Catherine and Strathie created a series of erotic stereotypes for each of can-can girls, including a French maid, schoolgirl, dominatrix, cross dresser and baby doll.

The can-can was also all about the revelation of the girls’ petticoats and panties – or lack thereof (which made the dance even more popular and scandalous). Strathie and Catherine came up with a series of petticoats and underpants that were revealing, but not too revealing. Some of the multi-layered undergarments weighed up to thirty pounds, requiring the dancers to wear braces worn on their shoulders to support the costume’s weight.

This same attention was lavished on the men’s costumes, including Zidler’s “fat-suits” (fashioned from a full body cast of actor Jim Broadbent), and the period suits worn by Christian, the Duke and Toulouse-Lautrec took a month to hand tailor. To provide period realism to Catherine and Strathie’s reinvention of the period, the production crafted the costumes with much attention to detail. The large costume production team made the costumes in a huge workshop at Fox Studios Australia, with some intricate detail work done in India.

“Moulin Rouge!” has nearly three hundred-plus visual effects to help underline the story and to extend Luhrmann’s created world. Luhrmann elaborates on the visual effects done by Chris Godfrey: “We live in a world where audiences are not only aware but profoundly bored of the perfection of digital magic. Cameras move perfectly at impossible angles, reality has a beyond-real sharpness. Catherine and I gave Chris and the team at Animal Logic (visual effects house) a commission that we wanted to use digital power not to create perfection but imperfection, to reproduce camera shake, deconstruct imagery and create a sense that this film was hand made. By quoting period camera moves and film stock and to actively pursuing cinematic imperfections of yesteryear, we hoped our audience would trust more in the world that was being created. It is an oddity with this project that we spent so much money trying to make things less perfect”.

The Paris of “Moulin Rouge!”, was largely a digital creation. Early in the film’s development, Catherine Martin devised a series of Photoshop collages of turn of the century Paris. Chris Godfrey and his team then built a digital Paris based on these original collages. Godfrey further explains: “We’ve designed the effects so you travel over a two-dimensional Paris, which then becomes a 3-D model of the city, which is then joined to the one-fifth full scale main hall. Thus with a sweeping single shot we can travel from bourgeois Paris through streets of toothless rabble and up into Christian’s garret”. 

The music of “Moulin Rouge!” is probably the most important element of the entire film. The soundtrack is a celebration of many great pop songs of the twentieth century, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lennon and McCartney, from Sting to Elton John, from Dolly Parton to David Bowie. Luhrmann drew inspiration from the methods of some musicals from Hollywood’s glory days. The device of contemporary music set against a period setting was standard fare in the heyday of the musicals.

Ewan McGregor’s character Christian needed to possess an extraordinary gift with poetry, so Craig Pearce and Luhrmann created a device early on where Christian would channel the great popular songs of the twentieth century. In early drafts of the script he would say, ‘The times are a changing’ or ‘We can’t go on together with suspicious minds’, from there they started using popular songs as a storytelling text. 

Luhrmann also wanted an electric score that would encompass opera, pop, rock, techno and standards to feature the work of dozens of composers, producers, arrangers and musicians. Because the songs are a crucial storytelling device, music supervisor and executive music producer Anton Monsted and music programmer/music development editor Josh G. Abrahams supplied Luhrmann and Pearce with songs, as the writing duo worked on the script. 

Luhrmann created what they called STAFs, meaning “Scenes That Are Fundamental”. Each STAF that demanded a song cue would work to illustrate the story in a way dialogue or regular action couldn’t. As the songs became finalized, Luhrmann held workshops and rehearsals for the actors. The actors would then record the songs, followed by Luhrmann putting it all on film. The digital recording methods allowed the filmmakers to “fine tune” the music outside of the studio. To get the best performance, Luhrmann took advantage of different song recording options: to pre-record the vocal track so that the actors could lip-sync to their own performance, or have the actors sing live on-set to a guide track or a live keyboard accompaniment. 

For the latter, the pianist would follow the emotional direction the actor wanted to take the song, resulting in a less mechanical, but more in the moment performance. The album opens and closes with David Bowie singing the 1940s standard “Nature Boy”. The album then closes with Bowie’s collaboration with Massive Attack on the same song. The two interpretations of the song, with its central lyric being “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return” would bookend the film. 

“U2” front man Bono reinterprets the T-Rex classic “Children of the Revolution”. Multi-platinum recording artists Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink recorded a cover of the LaBelle classic “Lady Marmalade”, which became the first single from the soundtrack. The song itself skyrocketed to become a major hit and still gets radio airplay till today. 

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor make their on-screen and soundtrack singing debuts, with what is the films best song. A duet called “Come What May”, a love song composed for the film, produced by multi-Grammy winner David Foster. The duet is important plot wise, as the song Christian and Satine sing to one another is the declarations of their love. The song was originally written and to be used for Luhrmann’s previous film “Romeo + Juliet”, but was scrapped and brought back for “Moulin Rouge!”.

Two soundtrack albums were released, with the second coming after the first one’s massive success. The first soundtrack, “Moulin Rouge! Music from Baz Luhrmann’s Film”, was released on May 8th 2001, with the second “Moulin Rouge! Music from Baz Luhrmann’s Film, Vol. 2” following on February 26th 2002.

Originally set for release Christmas 2000 as a high-profile Oscar contender, 20th Century Fox eventually moved the release of “Moulin Rouge!” to Spring 2001 to allow Luhrmann more time in post-production. It officially opened in theaters on June 1st, 2001. “Moulin Rouge!” was ranked 25th on the American Film Institutes list of the 25 Greatest Movie Musicals. It grossed a $185 million on a $50 million budget and became a big hit with critics and named one of 2001’s best films of the year.  

“Moulin Rouge!” is a love it or hate it experience, that could trigger a migraine in anyone. But Luhrmann’s film is one of the great movie spectacles of any generation, an undertaking of vast scope that’s rich in every frame it possesses on the screen. Put it simply it’s a dazzling extravaganza, a kaleidoscope of melodrama of both soap opera and the traditional musical opera. Luhrmann sucks you into a world of Truth, Beauty and most of all love. “Moulin Rouge!” is such a strong film that it achieved a reinvention of the American musical genre, by taking musicals to a level that has never been experienced before that has yet to be and may never be equaled in its visual style.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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