The musical Moulin Rouge has returned! Once again! As cinemas return to (sort of) normalcy in the midst of a pandemic, 2021 is being hyped as a kind of banner year for that most long-suffering of genres – one that has recently been enduring a distinctly sub-golden age between the instantly legendary calamity of Cats and such lesser recent failures as The Prom.
— Moulin Rouge The Musical – Broadway (@MoulinRougeBway) May 19, 2021
The projected box-office success of Jon M Chu’s In the Heights this summer and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story at Christmas will legitimize the grand-scale studio musical, with cinematic adaptations of Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and Tick, Tick… Boom! on the way. In the meantime, less commercially oriented cinephiles are looking forward to the comeback of French auteur Leos Carax, whose thrillingly strange-looking Sparks-scored spectacle Annette is slated to open the Cannes festival in July.
Rogue’s twenty years without stopping
The last time there was this much industry conjecture about the screen musical’s resurrection, oddly enough, the picture at the centre of it was also selected as that year’s Cannes curtain-raiser.
Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which brashly announced its artistic intentions on the Croisette before asserting itself as one of the most eccentric summer releases ever dealt by a major Hollywood studio, polarised opinion with its relentless blend of fin de siècle spectacle, Vegas pizzazz, and karaoke-bar playlisting, brashly announcing its artistic intentions on the Croisette before asserting itself as one of the most eccentric summer releases ever dealt by a major Hollywood studio.
The musical had mainly become the realm of children’s animation by the 1990s, with infrequent exceptions – Alan Parker’s attractive but aloof Evita, Lars von Trier’s nihilistic provocation Dancer in the Dark – that mostly proved the rule.
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Luhrmann’s picture, which was adapted from no source material other than nearly every musical ever filmed, was just as odd, but it was tougher for people to overlook: Missy Elliott and friends’ gruelling, the chart-topping cover of Lady Marmalade provided crucial marketing support, catapulting this richly odd oddity into the stature of a pop-cultural event, pitting equal, opposing teams of cultish devotion and rabid disdain. The Washington Post gushed, “A beautiful postmodern hug of a movie.”
The Village Voice sneered, “A hungry vacuum cleaner of a film, sucking up a century’s worth of garbage with the same monotonously unmodulated hum.” Both sides seemed to be able to find a suitable overheated metaphor in Luhrmann’s excess movie. That was its enchantment.
The cultural influence of the film
The film’s cultural impact proved to be greater than its initial box office: it grossed a respectable $179 million worldwide, falling shy of the top 20 hits of the year, nestled between forgotten nonentities Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Dr Dolittle 2. That’s less than a self-proclaimed “spectacular spectacular” might hope for, but it’s still an impressive sum for a picture that nearly sets itself up as a blunder by design.
In 2001, the thought of a studio even wide-releasing a 1900-set love musical burlesque – in which a cameo by Kylie Minogue as an absinthe fairy ranks as one of its more sensible creative decisions – was unique. In 2021, it’s inconceivable and this film was with Moulin Rouge music.