This is at least arguably a good movie, and is without question enjoyable to watch, which its gloriously gaudy visuals and fast-based, campy mix of farce and operatic melodrama, but there’s a reason virtually no-one today considers it the masterpiece it was hailed as on its initial arrival. The basic problem with it, which has been pointed out before, is its emphasis on style over substance and its complete lack of substance as a result. That said, I also have two other major objections to it.
One is how it appropriates the plot of one of my favorite operas, La Traviata, and then proceeds to make really poor use of it. The original opera had one of the most touching stories in history, and Moulin Rouge manages to obliterate almost everything that worked about it. The opera’s plot set-up made sense in context; the movie kept the plot, but not the set-up. The opera had one of the most beautifully realistic and understated portrayals of relationships in the history of the form; every character in the movie is an over-the-top cartoon. The opera made its heroine’s sacrifice heartrending; in the movie, Satine’s ‘sacrifice’ is so senseless and contrived that it’s impossible to take seriously. In the opera, leading man Alfredo is, like most Italian opera heroes, a genuinely sweet man who thinks with his heart, and who shows genuine remorse for his one impulsive act of cruelty. In the movie, Christian doesn’t even apologize for publicly humiliating Satine—she just takes him back, as if what he did was totally justified. All these changes really bother me because, while La Traviata will assuredly outlast Moulin Rouge, at this particular moment the mediocre hit movie is more widely known to the general populace that the glorious masterpiece opera, so for a lot of people this is their only exposure to the story.
The other issue I have with the film is the way they put together their jukebox score. There’s a reason most jukebox scores consist of songs by the same songwriter(s) (Singin’ In the Rain, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Boy From Oz), the same band (Beatlemania, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or at the very least the same era (Rock of Ages, Bullets Over Broadway, Walking On Sunshine). The importance of having a unified sound to your score is not simply waived because you’re doing a jukebox musical—your songs still need to fit together properly. Moulin Rouge, on the other hand, draws its material from a plethora of totally unconnected sources, and while some of the numbers are enjoyable in themselves (particularly David Bowie’s opening rendition of “Nature Boy”, the love duet for the leads, featuring a gigantic medley of fragments from various songs containing the world ‘love’, the star-studded single version of “Lady Marmalade” recorded for the soundtrack, and the tango version of the Police’s “Roxanne”), the overall score suffers from a serious lack of focus. Frankly, using “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not only in the same score, but in the same scene, wouldn’t pass muster on a compilation CD, much less a musical.
This film was hailed like the Second Coming when it came out, simply because what it was doing was so new and innovative, but it has since sunk into a much more deserved status as a campy guilty pleasure, especially after the Chicago film took its stylistic innovations and used them for something with actual story substance.