Moulin Rouge
dir. Baz Luhrmann
Opens Fri June 1 at various theaters.

Moulin Rouge is very good. Details follow. But first, a brief expository disquisition on musicals.

Musicals are the great white whale of Hollywood genres. Though they once defined the economy of showbiz, audiences' capacity to be amazed--or even diverted--by their lugubrious spectacle diminished as life became more interesting and film outgrew its theatrical roots. If the form wasn't already spiritually dead by the time rock 'n' roll came along, that advent pretty much did the trick.

Filmmakers and studios have been trying in vain to revive the musical for the last 30 years, dressing it up in all sorts of quasi-novel packages (camp, new wave, traditional arrangements) that fall short of reinvention, and only magnify the genre's flaws.

In that time there have been about seven great movie musicals (no, I don't count Grease), a handful of passable attempts, and a slew of horrible botch jobs whose failures only cemented the idea that musicals were a relic best left to posterity. The problem lies not so much with the times, I think (South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was as authentic--and as great--a musical as Singin' in the Rain), but with the genre's inability to evolve with the medium: to become capable of expressing human spectacle (dancing and singing) in the shorthand of contemporary cinematic language.

To the list of great musicals, we can now add Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, a spectacular whose vernacular is well beyond contemporary--it's practically hypertext. Like Luhrmann's past work (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), Rouge isn't so much a feast as a food fight for the senses. The opening shot alone is an orgy of texture and design, taking us from an orchestra pit in muted color to a drizzly Paris rooftop in grainy sepia, past a vibrant miniature Montmartre peopled with boho streetwalkers and beautiful signs, and into the incredible club itself, an explosion of decadent red, yellow, and white--the camera careening through the set like mercury in a luge. Throughout the film, Luhrmann batters us with a collage of fractal stimuli, which, like Disneyland, you can't see all of in a single visit. But amid the relentless digression, the things you need to know--"truth, beauty, freedom, and above all, love"--are repeated again and again. Sort of like in a pop song.

Luhrmann has been attacked for putting too much information on the screen, but this criticism misses the point. Showing us more than we can process gives the audience more credit than less. Stop too long to focus on any one element, and the intrinsic artifice of melodrama (which the film bestows with mythic heft) loses its wonder. Framing the story as a visceral mosaic affords us the luxury of pleasures we might otherwise be too guilty, or too discerning, to indulge. More importantly, the overwhelming presentation allows Moulin Rouge to be not just a musical, but musical--the film mimics the structural characteristics of pop (theme, variation, refrain) with such panache that by the end, you realize that the film itself, that life itself, is one great big dumb glorious pop song, a message that lies deep in the heart of every great musical ever made.

The story is metaclassic trash: In the shadow of the world's most decadent nightclub, a wide-eyed bohemian poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor, perfect) falls in love with an impossibly glamorous songbird/courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman, trying very hard). Improbably, she loves him back, but her opportunistic manager (Jim Broadbent, playing the garish reciprocal of his Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy) has reserved her body for the exclusive use of an investor (who has agreed to fund Spectacular Spectacular, a revue that will elevate the Moulin Rouge to the stage of legitimate theater, and make Satine a true star). Of course, the poet becomes the writer of the show, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation, eventual tragedy, and the biggest production number in the history of cinema.

But within this older-than-Orpheus story lie a number of spirited conceits that change everything, beginning with the music itself.

The pitfall of all musicals--song length--is dispatched by splicing together a medley of the good parts of a million instantly-familiar tunes, which bleed into one another (Lady Marmalade to Nirvana to Marilyn Monroe to Madonna) with audacious abandon. Taken alone, any one of these songs would've been camp irony. But in the mad sweep of Luhrmann's pop gestalt, they become a monument to the glory of high-low art.

Their power, like that of the musical itself, requires surrender. You could dwell on the fact that the actors aren't singers (digital pitch correction is like a rhythm track throughout), or on any number of other problems. It's hard to deny that Moulin Rouge is a flawed gem. What's harder to deny, however, is the heart that beats at the center of the elephantine spectacle--the rapturous love for the possibilities of movies and romance that once made musicals matter. n