Nowadays, almost every blockbuster features an impressive score that’ll enhance the plot by building the tension through subtle crescendos or make a characters death more poignant by bringing back a certain theme. However there are films where music interweaves with the plot and becomes as much a part of the story as the dialogue, and one such example of this is Moulin Rouge! The fact that Moulin Rouge! is a musical makes the soundtrack even more important, and puts it under even more scrutiny. If the music were bad, the whole film would be tainted; but the music is glorious from start to finish, which means the whole film is lifted.
Baz Luhrmann’s film is unlike anything else; the combination of lush orchestral writing, with imaginative reinventions of classic songs and excellent (un-autotuned) singing is impressive. The story is that of Christian (Ewan McGregor) an English writer who falls in love with the star of the Moulin Rouge, Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan who is terminally ill. Moulin Rouge! tells us of their forbidden love, the love triangle with the jealous duke (Richard Roxburgh) and Satine’s pressing illness. The songs picked relate directly to the film, with lyrics saying what words could not.
The reinvention of ‘Your Song’ transforms the Elton John classic from a cheesy love song to a soaring, euphoric ballad. The melody has been subtly changed from the original, and these alterations elevate the vocal melody. For example in the second verse where Ewan McGregor sings ‘see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue’ – the melody ascends quickly pushing the song into the exhilarated chorus. ‘Your Song’ conveys perfectly Christian’s undying love for Satine, and his attempts to make her feel the same way. ‘El Tango de Roxanne’ is another creative reinvention, this time of the classic Police song ‘Roxanne’. Combined with Mariano Mores tango composition ‘Tanguera’, the track is utterly transformed with sultry string riffs and frantic violin counter melodies, combined with the juxtaposition of two completely different vocal lines: Jacek Koman singing the aggressive, husky main melody and Ewan McGregor singing the beautiful yet hopeless counter melody. The lyrics in ‘Roxanne’ directly translate to the plot of Moulin Rouge! and the way Christian feels about Satine – how he wishes she wouldn’t carry on as a courtesan and would run away with him.
The only original song in the film, ‘Come What May’, is a heartfelt duet between Christian and Satine. The clichéd lyrics (‘every day I love you more and more’) should be saccharine, but combined with David Baerwald’s expert song-writing and orchestral arrangement, it appears genuine and romantic. ‘Sparkling Diamonds’ (a medley of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends’ and ‘Material Girl’) is a lively introduction to the Moulin Rouge performers, showcasing Satine as the star of the show. ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’ shows a different side to Satine, making her seem naïve and embodying her dream of being a real actress – not just a cabaret star. ‘Elephant Love Medley’ is another track where the lyrics directly mirror what is going on in the film, with the mashup of various love song focusing on Christian trying to convince Satine that she loves him, and her resisting (and eventually being persuaded).
On paper, these over the top reinventions shouldn’t work, but in the context of Baz Luhrmann’s pastiche-jukebox musical, it does. Each song is expertly reworked, with gorgeous orchestration from Craig Armstrong and excellent altered melodies. Moulin Rouge! is truly a film where the music is integral to the plot, not just one where the music enhances it.