Baz Luhrmann transformed a $15 million-dollar budget into a glitzy, modish production with Romeo + Juliet, a kaleidoscope of twitchy theatrics and candy-coated photography perched behind the bard's language. Though boundary-pushing with its creative sensibility, the artistic flare he invokes can't be denied. As a lifelong opponent of most musicals -- picture Micheal Palin's King of Swamp Castle character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail here, stopping any breakout in song -- the idea of Luhrmann rounding out his "Red Curtain" trilogy with a full-fledged, tune-heavy production didn't invoke a lot of excitement, based on personal apprehension. Then, while watching Moulin Rouge!, a lavish piece of work every bit the creative successor of his two previous orchestrations, all that trepidation disappears. Infusing the same jittery style of Romeo + Juliet with a tempered, shapely eye for svelte showmanship, this swirl of pop art and classic structure defies the very genre in which it relishes.
A frantically reassembled adaptation of the three-act opera La Traviata, co-written by Craig Pearce, Luhrmann's musical tells the story of two lovers living in turn-of-the-19th-century Montmatre. Young Christian has traveled from England to this land of sex, absinthe, abandon, and vividness to become a writer, coasting along the current of the Bohemian "carpe diem"-driven revolution while wanting nothing more than to satisfy his obsession with true love. By chance, he finds himself right in the thick of the luminous Moulin Rouge, a seedy-yet-scintillating brothel packed with lavish dance numbers and willing courtesans, where he first lays eyes on crown-jewel Satine (Nicole Kidman). Wires get crossed between her and owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent), however, and Satine's led to believe that Christian is a wealthy financier who's interested in transforming the Moulin Rouge into a genuine theater. This becomes complex as Satine learns of Christian's true profession, but only after the two discover a spark -- another exertion of Baz Luhrmann's talent in establishing love at first sight.
But as seen at the beginning, with Christian wallowing in depression instead of singing from the rooftops, Moulin Rouge! won't be a story with a happy ending in the traditional sense. That's Baz Luhrmann's ace in the hole, the thing that takes his musical to another level and, odd as it may sound, tempers his style. We soon learn that Satine's battling an aggressive form of tuberculosis, adding a grim tone to the picture that lingers throughout the current of exploding colors and copious theatricality. As the financier -- a haughty, fidgety, sweaty Duke (Richard Roxburgh) with an eye for Satine, and Satine alone -- embeds more into the storyline against Christian and Satine's forbidden romance, this twang of tragedy adds gravity to the storytelling's focus on aspiration and living for the moment. With every glamorous, bluntly emotional sequence that sends rhapsodic sensations over the top, there's a shot of misfortune and melancholy that cunningly counterbalances the happiness. It's actually quite clever with the emotion it strikes.
Within the first few moments, between quick-cuts to Ewan McGregor's face and surgically-placed sound elements, it's obvious that Luhrmann has cut Moulin Rouge! from the same cloth as his previous work. He employs a production budget roughly triple that of Romeo + Juliet, enabling him to paste together a more elaborate, wide-ranging visual experience packed with ornate set and costume designs, slapping on a layer of polish to his spastic style. Within bright-red neon pinwheels stretching into the soupy cobalt blue sky, acid-colored absinthe fairies spreading their magic while singing a tune from "The Sound of Music", and the flamboyant orchestration of the pompous, indulgent Moulin Rouge itself, Luhrmann's film fiercely grabs one's attention as a matchless feast for the eyes. Yet as hard as it may be to believe, the director also exerts tighter, more poetic control over his Don McAlpine-shot cinematography, which lingers more on breathtaking shots than the convulsive quickness.
Moulin Rouge! also uses a divisive mechanic for its storytelling that'll assuredly rub some the wrong way. Instead of employing original songs, Luhrmann lovingly stitches together covers for popular romantic tunes, ranging from Elton John and The Police all the way to Nirvana and Marilyn Monroe, to invoke a sense of lingering artistry that ties modern angst, passion, and love back to the Bohemian rage present in 19th century France. The concept isn't an unfamiliar one; Shakespeare, a heavy influence on Luhrmann, also culled popular music from the streets and used it for dramatic emphasis. Luhrmann mirrors that in a modern fashion, taking us through a boisterous scene in the Moulin Rouge! with riffs on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and a romantic interlude between Christian and Satine postured by "How Wonderful Life Is". Where some might see a lack of creativity, others will see a distinctive and respectful way to pull the audience in and give them emotive songs to get wrapped up in -- even mouth the words to, due to the familiarity.
As Moulin Rouge! slants away from cloak-and-dagger love towards sadder tones of obligation and heartbreak, all circling a Hamlet-esque "play within a play" that the Duke finances under demanding conditions, Baz Luhrmann tailors his flashy style with the shifting tonality into an affective three-act operatic structure that's really something to behold. Coupled with authentic performances from Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, both in dramatic and singing capabilities, the Australian director's picture transforms into a spectacularly affective, style-heavy collage of musicality and cinematic zing -- almost what one might envision of what a crowd-pleasing Andy Warhol might throw together -- that achieves greatness through flamboyant reverence to its inspirations. And somehow, through the maudlin love story and frilly construction surrounding weepy songs, it satisfies on such a creative level that it doesn't take an aficionado or, hell, even a remote enthusiast of musicals to get wrapped up in Christian and Satine's tragic romance.
Video and Audio:
Fox's Blu-ray of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet blew me away with its boost in audiovisual quality, so it's expected that Moulin Rouge! -- a film five years its junior -- should be even more robust. To say it delivers would be an understatement.
Baz Luhrmann's film arrives with the director's stamp of approval in a 2.4:1 1080p AVC visualization, and it's every ounce as lavish and stylish as one could hope it to be. Very bold, brash colors of every shade of the rainbow permeate the film from start to finish, from blasts of green in Kylie Minogue's Tinkerbell-like incarnation and the "Diamond Dogs" blaring costumes to the assertive usage of the color red, this high-definition transfer supports the full gradient without a hitch. But it's not about merely punching the dial on the colors, either; this transfer also exercises control on several unbridled elements on the otherwise excellent 2004 two-disc DVD, concocting accurate skin tones that fall much more in-line with the palette's desired look and muting other instances of overblown shades. Detail replication goes above and beyond the call of duty, etching out textures in Luhrmann's close-ups, costume designs, and set decorations that really astound, while the richness of contrast amply balances the shades of color and darker scenes -- possibly rendering a few shades of black a bit too dark and uneven at times, but still very satisfying. Put simply, this presentation of Moulin Rouge!'s extravagant visual left me spellbound.
It'd take a hell of an audio track to best the visual treatment, but this DTS HD Master Audio track meets that challenge head-on with an absolutely superlative effort from Fox. Nearly every element one would expect to hold punch in this audio track -- the bass levels, the crispness of vocals in the song, the mid-range punch of the scoring and the ambient effects traveling to the rear -- create a surround environment that never, ever allows eve attentive ears out of the grasp of its cinematic aura. Naturally the bombastic songs power along with fierce bass-testing percussion and vibrant vocals, from the can-can performance in the Moulin Rouge! to the "virgin" sequence involving the Duke and Zidler , but subtle musical points like John Leguizamo's small interlude and the two key McGregor-Kidman duets find an elegant balance between atmosphere and clarity that's really impressive. Kidman's whisper-quiet vocals late in the film and the Duke's utterance of his intent towards Christian use echoes that are natural and very pleasing, while the actual orchestral scoring rushes to all channels with sweeping potency. Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English Descriptive language tracks are also available, along with Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitle options.
Identical stickers are slapped on the slipcase for both Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, reading "Exclusive Extras -- New Interview and Footage from the Vault". Now, on the Romeo + Juliet Blu-ray, that translates to a handful of interesting but limited little inclusions. It's pretty obvious, after digging through the plethora of supplements included on this disc, that the sticker mostly applies to Moulin Rouge!. After watching A Word from Baz (1:58, HD), an introduction that discusses the coloring process for the transfer and the inclusion of the extras, it was time to dive into the exclusive bits and pieces for this release -- and two words come to mind to describe it all: exhaustive, and impressive. They're not quite comprehensive though, leaving off a few interesting tidbits from the previous DVD edition.
An excellent Spectacular, Spectacular! Audio Commentary with Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Don McAlpine, and Craig Pierce hallmarks the experience, where the always-enthusiastic director and his crew goes to great lengths in describing the experience in constructing this lavish film. He talks about the sheen on Kidman's skin and its similarities to Marilyn Monroe's, the fascination with lights in the 1890s, the numerous models of "The Elephant" that were constructed, creating the individual spaces for Satine and Christian as they sing across Montmatre, the digital removal of harnesses, how Luhrmann found difficulty in building the Moulin Rouge! but adored building other elements. The audio track can be heard alone, or with the interactive built-in feature that incorporate snippets of behind-the-scenes footage -- many of which are inclusions in the From the Bazmark Vault -- and informative pop-up boxes, which can either just be watched with the film OR accessed to watch by themselves in a separate visualization.
A few new featurettes and interviews have been included here, mostly featuring Baz Luhrmann and his crew reflecting on the experience in a heartening fashion. A Creative Adventure (11:04, 16x9 HD AVC) covers how Luhrmann linked up with Catherine Martin. They reflect on their first conversation which apparently occurred with a few raised voices and admiration, as well as Martin's culture shock in seeing Luhrmann's hands-on presentation of his ideas. The House of Iona (7:11, HD Picture-Framed) focuses on the hub of operations for Baz Luhrmann's creative area, featuring licensed BBC interview footage as they follow through the different rehearsal and construction segments to the place.
From the Bazmark Vault (HD, Picture-Framed):
Much denser than the vault feature on the Romeo + Juliet Blu-ray, this collection of footage and assorted promotional elements offers a slate of really interesting bits to digest -- though, again, all of them arrive with a gaudy frame around each. The size of the image has been reduced to maybe 50% scale to fit inside of a gold-encrusted border, though they're all in high-definition. It's a kitschy technique, but the material certainly counterbalances this aggravation.
Father and Son (6:21) covers an alternate opening that was excised due to Cat Stevens' disapproval, while Baz Unleashes Unbridled Lust (5:11) focuses on early takes of the can-can dancing. A Kiss, A Touch Or a Pat (3:11) covers an inside look at Satine's "swoop" over the her tuxedoed admirers in the Moulin Rouge!. Zidler's Jig (:59) is a brief goofy dance featuring Broadbent, while Directing Man in the Moon and Deleted Cut (3:34) and Directing Like a Virgin (2:21) both focus on Luhrmann's method for particular scenes. The Duke's Happy Ending reveals rehearsal footage for the Duke's tantrum near the end of the film (keep an eye out for Leguizamo in a baby holster), while On-Set with Tolous Tonight is an off-the-cuff bit featuring Luhrmann and Leguizamo. There's also a few self explanatory bits: Early Cut of Zidler's Rap (3:00), Nicole and Jim Rehearse at Iona (1:20), Ewan and Nicole's First Dance (2:28), Jealousy Tango - The Early Tests (2:36), Rehearsal Footage - Jealousy Tango (3:31), Rehearsing Ravishment Rehearsal (3:45), and Nicole Kidman's First Vocal Test - "Sad Diamonds (1:38).
The rest of the features on this disc have either been carried over from or mirror topics covered in the 2004 two-disc special edition, and there's a lot of content to dig through -- some returning verbatim, others missing one or two features. The Making of Moulin Rouge! (25:54, HD Picture-Framed) featurette takes on a pretty standard structure in laying out the construction and character descriptions, really only interesting at this point for the archival footage of the interviewees. The Stars category brings over live-action character/actor profiles, while The Writers offers an interview with Luhrmann and Pierce and a bit of Pierce reading an early treatment -- originally under the "The Story is About" segment. The Dance portion brings over extended versions of five different dances and includes an interview with John "Cha-Cha" O'Connell, while The Music offers three featurettes -- The Music Journey, The Love Medley Music, and Interview with Fatboy Slim -- while preserving three music videos from the film's soundtrack.
The Design portion has seen a bit of a makeover; it includes the interviews with Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie, behind-the-scenes blurbs on The Evolution of The Intro and The Green Fairy, as well as the in-motion shots from the DVD's "Red Velvet Curtain" interactive track that cover The Windmill, Christian's Garret, The Main Hall, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and the Gothic Tower. The Cutting Room includes the Interview with Editor Jill Bilcock and the Director's Mock Previsualizations, while the Marketing section retain the Theatrical Trailer and Japanese Trailer, along with an Around the World with Moulin Rouge! feature. Unfortunately, the trailers have been included within picture boxes instead of in full HD transfers.
So, what's missing from the 2004 Special Edition DVD? It looks like a lot when gauging by the numbers, unfortunately, but only a few things will really be missed upon reflection. The first thing that comes to mind is the availability to view the "Abandoned Edits" pieces on their own, which are a slate of different sequences from mostly pre-screenings that have alternate music and visualization components, including the stand-in Green Fairy (actually the VFX coordinator). Secondly, essentially all of the static-menu galleries have been excised, which include the entirety of the awesome Set Design wing, the Photo Gallery, the Poster Gallery, and the Little Red Book gallery. From a video standpoint, it also looks like the Music Promo Spot, the International Sizzle Reel, and a slate of Dance Rehearsal Footage have been trimmed. Most of these bits, to be fair, are either dated or redundant when looked at against the rest of the special features, though the static galleries will assuredly be missed.
I've talked your ear off enough. Here's the raw point: I dislike musicals as a whole -- excluding Sweeney Todd, stop-motion / hand-drawn animation, and bits of Singin' in the Rain -- but I adore Moulin Rouge!. From Baz Luhrmann's lurid style and the usage of popular songs to the dramatic and musical performances from Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, this one's different from stock musicals because it's more of a blast of jaw-dropping creativity scattered atop a romantic story. Fox's Blu-ray takes the audiovisual potency of the film to a new level, presenting the bright cinematography and the bombastic songs damn near perfectly, while carrying over a near-endless slate of extras that comes extremely close to being comprehensive. For all that, this one earns the mark of DVDTalk's Collector's Series.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site