What went wrong? Time was when American movies couldn't stop singing. In the '30s, perhaps a third of all films were, in some way, musicals. Top Broadway composers went West and wrote tunes that were the most popular of their day and still play in the nation's memory-jukebox; Harold Arlen's score for The Wizard of Oz is entrancing TV audiences 60 years after it was written. Pop music shared center stage with operetta (in Jeanette MacDonald's films) and boogie-woogie (in shorts showcasing such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington).
In the fantasy language of film, it was the most natural thing for a fella and a gal to burst into song. Just about everybody sang: Cagney, Gable, the Marx Brothers, every cowboy from Gene Autry to John Wayne. And when the stars didn't sing, they danced. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers not only taught the nation new steps but, dancing cheek to cheek, they put love in motion. They defined la belle, la perfectly swell romance.
Even the assault of rock 'n' roll, which divided pop music into kid stuff and easy listening, didn't put an end to musicals. A Hard Day's Night peacefully coexisted with The Sound of Music (which was one of four '60s musicals to win the Oscar for Best Picture and which reigned for 12 years as the world's top-grossing film). But the form soon atrophied. The last traditional live-action musical to be a box-office smash was Grease, in 1978. Since then, only animated features like Beauty and the Beast have put fannies in the seats and songs on the Top 40. And lately, even the cartoons are doing without a lot of new songs. Today the notion of people opening their mouths to sing their hearts out is as anachronistic as speaking in iambic pentameter.
If anyone can bring pizazz to this decrepit genre, it's Baz Luhrmann--the mad Aussie who, in his 1996 Romeo + Juliet made Shakespeare play like a psychedelic rap video. The idea here was to take a plot that crosses 42nd Street with Camille and, he says, "steal bits of culture from the 20th century and use it to make a code, a software, to access emotion and character."
The movie's first moments (a skinhead in a tux conducts the Fox fanfare) cue you to Luhrmann's boldness. A Green Fairy sings The Sound of Music. In the nightclub, Nicole Kidman evokes Marilyn and Madonna as she swings above the crowd warbling Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend. Ewan McGregor, as the poor writer who falls for the courtesan, is a nouveau Gene Kelly--a hunky Joe with a radiant smile, haunting the Left Bank like An American in Paris, twirling an umbrella a la Singin' in the Rain. There's something else deja vu about this pair: they have the innocence and maturity of the great old stars.
Moulin Rouge isn't just a retro wallow. It's a head-on collision of the romantic and the grotesque, the songs of MGM and MTV. Dwarves in spangled costumes dance to Rhythm of the Night; a sultry chorus line coos, "Moulin Rouge-ez avec moi ce soir?" and performs a tantric cancan. Like The Producers, this is a backstage musical with a delirious production number. Here it's an all-out, far-out tribute to India's Bollywood musicals--a kind of Springtime for Hindu--with enough eye candy to give the viewer diabetes.
Luhrmann will never be guilty of visual understatement (his name could be Luridman), but he and his wife, production designer and costumer Catherine Martin, have found an intelligent nexus of sense and sensibility. They have created a fantasy Paris where everything is not only possible but gorgeous as well. The camera hovers over a cityscape that looks like a perfect cardboard diorama. Dancers' skirts swirl in Impressionist pixilation. "Don't wanna listen?" the film seems to ask the musically challenged viewer. "Then just watch!"
There's a final reason the movie musical is dormant. The form is about transcending speech with song, allowing the soul to soar; and rapture is out of fashion in pop culture. With its image of lovers perched on a cloud under a smiling moon, Moulin Rouge can rekindle that joy. The film dances; the heart sings.