‘Moulin Rouge!’ At 20: A Trailblazer In Movie Musicals

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Baz Luhrmann’s smash hit musical Moulin Rouge! turns 20 this year, with the stage adaptation hitting the West End stage in November. Joanne Elliott evaluates the musical’s legacy.

In 2001, the film was an unexpected hit with the movie musicals that were commonplace in the 30s, 40s and 50s having largely died out. By the 90s, most musicals released were animated Disney movies which were naturally very different to the MGM musicals of the 30s to 50s. But Moulin Rouge! changed the game for movie musicals in the 21st Century. The combination of modern hits with a turn of the 20th century setting was a winner for Baz Luhrmann. In the past two decades it has inspired a resurgence of the big, splashy, musical movies that were so popular in the 40s and 50s.

Even without the context of the decline in live-action musicals, Moulin Rouge! was an ambitious venture and not the most likely candidate for commercial success. It could very easily have been a complete disaster, being wildly over the top, incredibly stylised and jam packed with as many of the biggest 20th century pop hits that could be crammed into its two hour running time. But the very things that made it a gamble were also what made it great. It fully embraced the spectacle of golden-era Hollywood musicals. But it also did something completely new with its use of popular music. It’s difficult for a musical to stand out from the crowd, and Moulin Rouge! certainly achieved that.

It’s clear to see the impact of the film in the movie musicals that followed. The Greatest Showman (2017) is the first and most obvious that comes to mind. Though filmed over a decade after, the Moulin Rouge! hallmarks are clear to see. Showman also blends the historical with the modern. Set in the 19th century it uses modern pop songs (though originals rather than covers) in order to make its main character seem ahead of his time and give the story a modern feel. The penchant for bright colours and the feeling of excess is also very much present in Showman. The tone of the two films may be very different but the embrace of extravaganza is definitely the same.

You can also see subtle shades of the film’s influence in Rocketman, the 2019 Elton John biopic. The way the film plays with time, using the songs that best fit the moment rather than adhering to a strict chronology feels like a natural extension of how Moulin Rouge! plays with time. There are also some similarities in the films’ use of fantastical elements, whilst Moulin Rouge! has Kylie Minogue’s absinthe-induced Green Fairy and a singing moon, Rocketman has Elton John floating above his piano whilst singing.

These films are wildly different in terms of genre. One is a tragic love story, the other is a biopic about a 70s rockstar. Yet I would argue Rocketman bears far more similarity with Moulin Rouge! than it does with the 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. The two share the same choice of narrative framing device (character in the present flashes back to events of the past). They also use songs outside chronology of the time period to emphasize story beats, and implement fantastical elements in order to explore the inner emotions or struggles of the characters. Fantastical elements are used in Moulin Rouge! to illustrate the feeling of falling in love (the whole fantasy section in ‘Your Song’ for instance). Whereas in Rocketman they are utilised to show John’s inner feelings (the aforementioned floating above a piano is a visual indicator of his elation at connecting with the audience during his first gig in the US at The Troubadour).

Moulin Rouge! also occupies an odd space when it comes to movie musicals because it started as movie and transitioned to the stage, whereas most of the famous movie musicals go the other way. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, you can see the film’s influence on these more traditional stage to screen adaptations.

For instance, the film adaptation of Chicago (2002). Whilst it’s a more traditional musical, it employs fast, music video style cutting techniques, similar to Luhrmann’s film. The interruptions of time and space are also similar. Chicago cuts between reality and the imagined musical numbers happening in Roxie’s head. Meanwhile, Moulin Rouge! intercuts the action with Christian’s retrospective narration, jumping in and out of the main timeline of the story. Chicago went one step further than Moulin Rouge! by winning the 2003 Best Picture Oscar. However Moulin Rouge! opened the door for Chicago’s success, being the first musical film nominated in a decade in 2002.

With an incredible array of movie musicals due to hit screens this year, from In The Heights (Lin Manuel-Miranda’s other hit musical) to Dear Evan Hansen, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when movie musicals seemed like something that was solely confined to Disney. But Moulin Rouge! in all of its wild, wonderful, weird abandon reopened the door to movie musicals in the 21st century. It showed that audiences still wanted musicals. It fully inhabited that wonderful in-between space of contemporary and yet also timeless due to the sheer range of visual and audio references to other eras included in the film.

Whether you love it or loathe it, Moulin Rouge! by its sheer existence left an indelible mark on the musical movies that followed. Twenty years after its initial release, it has an enviable legacy. It brought the musical movie in all of its extravagant glory into the 21st century.

Moulin Rouge! is available to watch on Disney +

Words by Joanne Elliott


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