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Strictly Luhrmann

The Australian director makes a bold case for the viability of movie musicals in a dizzying blend of pop sensibilities called 'Moulin Rouge.'

May 06, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

In the words of Australian filmmaker Bazmark Anthony Luhrmann, better known as Baz, it has been "a long time between dreams."

Not since "Grease" in 1978 has a movie musical made enough money for the major Hollywood studios to believe in the genre. Exceptions, especially in Disney's animated stable ('Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," among others), have tantalized the masses while getting them humming a song or two. But live action is another story.

In the 1970s and '80s especially, some genuine oddballs turned up. Among them: Martin Scorse-se's bop-era melodrama, "New York, New York'; Herbert Ross' often astounding "Pennies From Heaven," taken from the BBC miniseries; and Francis Ford Coppola's sort-of-musicals "One From the Heart" and "The Cotton Club."

More recently, we've had such efforts as Alan Parker's "Evita" and, on a comparatively tiny budget, the Bjrksical "Dancer in the Dark" from writer-director Lars von Trier.

Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 9, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Artist's name--In a Sunday Calendar story on the movie "Moulin Rouge," the name of Toulouse-Lautrec was misspelled.

Where will "Moulin Rouge" fall in this multifarious list?

Opening the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, with May 18 openings in Los Angeles and New York preceding its June 1 wide release, the $55-million picture is set in an 1899 Paris where everybody sings songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Elton John and David Bowie. It's Luhrmann's third in what he calls his "Red Curtain" trilogy of mood-swinging, consciously theatrical, aggressively stylized movies.

First came "Strictly Ballroom," taken from two earlier Luhrmann stage versions. Then came "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," in which Luhrmann and his steady collaborators--among them his wife, production designer Catherine Martin--presented the Bard's iambic pentameter in a Florida beach town riddled with automatic gunfire.

In "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman portrays Satine, a can-can dancer with serious stage ambitions, as well as an untimely case of consumption. She's the jewel for hire at the title club, the newest-latest in Paris' Montmartre district. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Christian, an idealistic writer who, Orpheus-like, descends into this underworld and falls like a log for Satine.

She has a more influential admirer, however: an oily count played by Richard Roxburgh, representing all philistines with money. Moulin Rouge club impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent) has convinced the count to finance his new show, "Spectacular Spectacular." Christian hops on board as a writer, falling in with the local bohemian circle, whose ringleader is Tolouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo).

Despite its wealth of period detail--'we're kind of research-nutty," Luhrmann says--the movie is no tasteful Merchant Ivory experience. The soundtrack is as diverse--and either exhilarating or chaotic, depending on your taste--as the film's visual attack. The movie is freebasing the entire 20th century, referencing a wild variety of pop tunes. Lyrics to "Silly Love Songs" and "All You Need Is Love" turn up as dialogue. The Police's "Roxanne" is reconceived as a dance-floor tango with a techno backbeat.

The signature theme (heard here in two versions, one by Bowie, the other a Bowie/Massive Attack duet) is the old Eden Ahbez curio "Nature Boy," popularized by Nat King Cole. Its key lyric is, in the 38-year-old Luhrmann's estimation, the "mantra" of his movie: "The greatest thing/You'll ever learn/Is just to love/And be loved in return."

Luhrmann spent the better and worse parts of five years making the film. His father died at the beginning of shooting. Kidman suffered various injuries. Luhrmann himself wondered along the way whether audiences would buy the old breaking-into-song bit.

Clearing the rights to the music was itself a two-year process. Even then, he didn't get everything he wanted: Cat Stevens declined to hand over "Father and Son," as his Muslim beliefs conflicted with the film's subject matter. (Illicit love outside marriage, for starters.) Luhrmann talked about the film recently, while sitting--and then standing, or pacing, before sitting again--in building No. 29 on the Fox lot, the post-production complex.

The director calls his baby "a comic tragedy." Tiny pause, then he repeats it, to see how it sounds: "A comic tragedy." Or, a tragic-comic musical.

"There aren't a lot of those being made at the moment," he deadpans.

Luhrmann was born in Sydney. His father served in the Navy in Vietnam. Eventually he relocated his wife and four children to remote Heron's Creek, to a farm and petrol station. Baz's mother ran a dress shop and later taught ballroom dance. Eventually his parents split up, his father remarried and his mother returned to Sydney.

Growing up, Luhrmann saw a lot of Elvis Presley musicals on television. He remembers seeing Fred Astaire pictures as well, high among them Vincente Minnelli's classic, "The Band Wagon."

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