Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Moulin Rouge!


Yesterday was the first day of filming on Virtually Vicki , my new infomercial in which I will be offering quality consumer products to a late night cable audience; empowering women all over America to have more Hollywood style and glamour than they ever thought possible on a modest budget. We spent the morning working on the  Lesterene make-up tap number. The recording sessions for the jingle were a breeze but my back-up tappers for the shoot seem to have been recruited from the home for terminal Tourette's sufferers. I'd never seen such flailing during a time step. I must speak to Joseph, my manager about this.

Our choreographer, a divine little man named Wakefield Poole, seemed pleased, however. When I asked where all the handsome young men in the top hats and tails had come from, he said he had found them at Falcon Studios. I'm not familiar with this movie-making outfit but they appear to have some physically fit contract players. We had finally gotten a decent take of my big solo spot and my dive from the giant mascara tube into the arms of the chorus boys when the stage lost power. Another one of California's rolling blackouts so we called it a day and will resume shooting this afternoon.

As I had several unstructured hours, I called Nurse Lynn, who had a day off from the enema ward, and we met up at the local Cineplex (which had emergency generator power) for a matinee of the new musical, Moulin Rouge before I had to hurry home to Norman and administer his anabolic steroids. Moulin Rouge , for those who have not heard, is the first large budget, live action film musical in some years and I've been desperate to see it. A musical diva such as myself tries to keep abreast of the latest trends. I was, at one time, a top contender for the role of Satine but I had to turn it down due to the long shoot in Australia. Norman is deathly allergic to eucalyptus and time there would not have been good for his health.

The musical is a tricky art form. It requires much more suspension of disbelief from an audience than most other forms of theater or film as we do not usually see people breaking into song or choreographed dance routines in real life (unless one happens to live in Orlando). The film musical’s dimming as a genre has come because modern audiences will accept diegetic performance (musical or dance numbers in which the characters are aware they are performing) but not emotional, book related performance in which the musical moment is about plot or theme or mood and the characters are unaware of their blissful unreality. The traditional book musical has thrived in alternative form such as animation as, in this venue, reality is not expected, but has been quiescent in live action features.

I'm not quite sure why this is. Modern movie audiences will accept the balletic choreography of the modern action movie, as practiced by directors such as John Woo that, in its own way, is just as unreal as formal dance. They will accept action sequences and violence that violate every known law of physics and human anatomy, but sing a song in 2/4 time and the audience stays away in droves.

A truism of musical theater and film is that you have ten minutes to establish rapport with the audience. During those ten minutes you must introduce your themes, your musical and scenic language, your plot, you characters, and any concept, style or unique stamp you want. If you do this successfully, the audience will follow you, no matter where you go. Fail to do it and, no matter how many good moments you may produce later on, the piece will flop.

Baz Luhrmann, the Australian theater and film director, approaches his new film, Moulin Rouge , with this rule firmly in mind. He begins immediately with a device establishing that this is a theatrical presentation, not reality based, by having the film open on a theatrical curtain. A conductor appears, leading an unseen orchestra in the famous Twentieth Century Fox fanfare as the curtains part showing the studio logo as we are drawn into a make believe, turn of the century Paris. We glide through an obvious model, containing the famous landmarks of the Belle Epoque until we land in a never-never land Montmartre, straight out of the Art Nouveau posters of Mucha and the dance halls of Toulouse-Lautrec. We meet Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young English writer come to experience bohemian Paris first hand, writing in his garret, straight out of a Zefferelli production of La Boheme . We then flash back a year as he tells his story of his doomed love for the beautiful courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), star of the show at the fabled Moulin Rouge nightclub, which his window overlooks.

When a narcoleptic Argentine (don't ask) crashes through his ceiling, Christian meets his upstairs neighbor, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) who, with his bohemian pals, is creating an epic new show, 'Spectacular Spectacular' for the nightclub. Christian, as a writer, is immediately drafted to help them and is soon singing a very familiar, but completely anachronistic song to help them out of their rut. Then off, they all go to the nightclub to sell Satine and the manager Zidler (Jim Broadbent) on the concept. This leads into a phantasmagoric production number which includes everything from Jule Styne show tunes to Labelle to Madonna to David Bowie. Nicole Kidman, in a succession of glorious costumes, swings above the crowd on a trapeze. The top hatted and tailed audience becomes part of the floorshow and the senses are overwhelmed as a montage of quick edits and film tricks create a bizarre and glorious world of color, light and sound. And that's just the first fifteen minutes...

The plot, as it develops, takes elements from La Traviata (the doomed love of a tubercular courtesan), La Boheme (raffish camaraderie in the garrets of Paris),Cabaret (the use of an entertainment venue to comment on society), and every sappy Harlequin romance in which the girl has to choose between the rich villain and the poor hero. But the plot is not the raison d'etre of the film. It's just an excuse for director Luhrmann to create and invent and try to develop a new film language for the musical. He almost succeeds. Some sequences, such as a tango to the Police's Roxanne intercut with an unwanted seduction where Nicole Kidman is dressed as Sargent's famous 'Madame X' are almost overwhelming. One of the few things I have ever seen captured on film that approximates the raw emotional power of the best grand opera. Another highlight is a Fred and Ginger moment over the rooftops of Paris to Elton John’s Your Song that is an absolutely delightful rendering of young love in an alternate film universe. Other sequences, however, are lessened by the hyperkinetic editing that keeps you from focusing and lessens the emotional moment. It’s a film that can be oppressively overpowering on the big screen but which becomes much more accessible in the scaled down proportions of home theater and DVD.

There have been complaints in other quarters about the vocal talents of the leads. Their voices are just fine. We're just used to hearing our ballad singers, in this day and age, reverbed and triple tracked and engineered into the big power ballad sound that no real human voice achieves. Ewan McGregor, in particular, has a great vocal range and can pack a major wallop in both upper and lower registers. Nicole Kidman's voice is a bit thinner but she can still sell a number. The supporting characters have less to do vocally, and most of what they do is either group work or comic turn (like Jim Broadbent's take on Like a Virgin ).

Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin (set and costume design), know exactly what they want in terms of performance style and look and pull no punches. The choices don't always work but, when they do, it's masterful. Images of the lovers dancing on clouds over Paris while a Placido Domingo voiced moon serenades, or singing I Will Always Love You in a cage of filigree while fireworks stream around them won't soon be forgotten. The show within a show, an opulent faux Indian extravaganza in the style of the Bollywood musicals, also impresses in an orgy of color and movement. Luhrmann makes no apologies for the anachronistic songs - it's the musical style that conveys the heightened reality of his emotional moods by tapping into our collective unconscious associations of a hundred years of popular music.

This is a film that will inspire strong reactions. For those with an appreciation of film art, opera, music, and design - it's stunning. For those who see film as a medium where plot and reality grounding are necessary, it will be bewilderment. Which one are you?

Ancient typewriter. Plywood Alps. Dancing waiters. Diamond necklaces. Bernie Taupin poetry. Absinthe drinking. Evil duke. Baby, it's the sitar man. Elephant boudoir. Gothic fireplace. Gun juggling. Minor key Rodgers and Hammerstein.

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