Even before 1927's "The Jazz Singer" ushered in the use of sound in films, music - delivered by an organist or pianist in the theater - was an integral part of the cinematic storytelling process. Not surprisingly, filmmakers then added musical composition, scores and numbers to their pictures to help tell their stories or at least accentuate whatever the mood and/or atmosphere might be.
This went on for decades in a mostly overlooked fashion until the movie studios discovered that moviegoers would actually buy the soundtrack for a picture they enjoyed. With the multi-platinum success of albums from films such as "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease," the studios quickly realized that any given film had a potentially lucrative goldmine in its soundtrack. This started the age of including songs in films, not necessarily for artistic reasons, but to help sell the accompanying album.
Of course, the most appropriate use of songs in a film is when it falls into the musical genre. Yet, beyond a few recent attempts of reinvigorating the format and notwithstanding the animated versions, the cinematic musical is something of a rare beast. When it does appear, it doesn't make much of a splash, even when filmmakers try to give it a fresh spin as did Woody Allen in "Everyone Says I Love You" and Kenneth Branagh in "Love's Labour's Lost."
Now, director Baz Luhrmann - the highly visual director of "Romeo + Juliet" and "Strictly Ballroom" - has thrown his hat into the ring with "Moulin Rouge." A rock opera-like musical that gets better as it progresses, the film is an effort that's all over the map, from zany slapstick comedy to Broadway musical and romantic tragedy. I personally didn't care for it at first, and that had nothing to do with "contemporary" songs appearing in a story set at the turn of the 20th century.
Instead, it's the manic approach that Luhrmann employs and deploys - especially in the first half hour or so - that is likely to elicit similar reactions in other viewers who aren't certain what to make of what they're seeing. While the opening is clever (where a small conductor appears at the bottom of the screen, the curtain behind him opens to reveal the 20th Century Fox logo and he begins to conduct the familiar drum and horn score) and the various contemporary lines of dialogue and song lyrics are cute and amusing, Luhrmann's over the top style is both grating and visually exhausting.
Utilizing all sorts of odd and outrageous camera shots and moves, rapid-fire editing, obnoxious cartoon sound effects, and "zany" overacting, the director creates a hyperkinetic atmosphere that may be visually stimulating, but comes off more as a "look what I can do" directorial edict rather than something that's integral to what the story needs and/or the film ultimately becomes.
Yet, somewhere along the way - and I don't recall the exact moment although it may have been when lead actor Ewan McGregor belts out a heartfelt version of Elton John's "Your Song" to Nicole Kidman's character - the film suddenly begins to work and may just win over many viewers as it eventually did with yours truly. That transition certainly coincides to some degree with the moment when it seems that Luhrmann has gotten such visual shenanigans and ostentation out of his system and begins to be more interested in letting the story speak for itself.
That's not to say that the plot - written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce ("Romeo + Juliet," "Strictly Ballroom") - is anything terribly complex. As told in hindsight by a young writer, credibly and enjoyably played by McGregor ("Eye of the Beholder," "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace"), the film - which isn't a remake of John Huston's 1952 picture of the same name -- revolves around that scribe who arrives in Montmartre, home of Paris' infamous Moulin Rouge, to write a story about love despite never experiencing that emotion himself. He gets the chance when he's mistaken for a duke by Satine - wonderfully performed by Nicole Kidman ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Practical Magic") - the local star and renowned courtesan who wants the duke to invest in the nightclub-based brothel.
From that point on, the two must contend with their love for one another while dealing with her progressively worsening illness and "duties" related to pleasing the Duke to get his money for the Moulin Rouge. The characters and their stories aren't much more than sketchily drawn, with only enough information and details being presented both to catch the viewer's interest on a basic level and keep the story moving forward. In that sense, Luhrmann seems more interested in style than substance, even if he obviously manages to deconstruct the longstanding, traditional musical in more ways than one.
Nevertheless, there's something about the way that McGregor and Kidman play their characters and, more surprisingly, belt out the songs that allows the picture to become engaging and grow on the viewer. The two performers do their own singing and - to the potential shock of many - can actually carry a tune and then some. Their duet in "Elephant Love Medley" - where a few lines from various love songs such as "One More Night," "Silly Love Songs" and "I Will Always Love You" are assembled together into a Broadway caliber number - is one of the film's highlights.
Luhrmann doesn't stop there, however, as the likes of The Police ("Roxanne"), Madonna ("Like a Virgin"), Nirvana ("Smells Like Teen Spirit") and others are layered or forcibly jammed into the picture with varying degrees of success or failure. Such moments, successful or not, are the film's highlights, along with the luscious and astonishing production, art design and cinematography.
That said, the film isn't as successful when Luhrmann's showing off his cinematic, razzle-dazzle bravura or when the musical numbers stop. In addition, while Kidman and McGregor get a lot more mileage out of their characters than they really should considering the latter's flimsy design, the rest of the "major" characters and related performances are not much more than caricatures.
The best among them comes from Jim Broadbent ("Bridget Jones's Diary," "Topsy-Turvy") as the club's impresario. Fairing much worse is John Leguizamo ("What's The Worst That Could Happen?" "Summer of Sam") as the real-life French artist Toulouse-Lautrec, and Richard Roxburgh ("Mission: Impossible II," "Oscar and Lucinda") as the nefarious Duke.
Neither escapes their one-dimensional roles, with Leguizamo's performing on his knees (to better approximate the diminutive stature of the real man) and lisping of his dialogue coming off as more of an obnoxious oddity than anything resembling an interesting, charming or even sympathetic trait. Roxburgh's character isn't much better, and his simplicity as a villain robs the triangular love quandary, and thus the film, of such much needed, credible conflict.
Simply put, it's too bad that Luhrmann didn't spend at least half of the time and energy into building up the story and characters as he obviously did in pushing the musical envelope and showing off his cinematic brawn. Wildly imaginative at times and containing some wonderfully delightful moments, this is the sort of film that some will probably describe as a brilliant failure while others will call it a mixed success, all depending on their viewpoint regarding the overall effort.
Certainly deserving to be lauded for daring to be different in this age of carefully calculated, cookie-cutter films, this is yet another picture that's apt to divide critics and viewers into distinct, love it or hate it camps. In my opinion, the fact that it works more often than not and managed to grow on me despite my initial disdain toward the blatant, directorial heavy-handedness means that it earns a passing rating of 6.5 out of 10.