Maintaining the Musical: Genre Theory in Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! (2001), the award-winning conclusion to Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, follows the tragic love story of characters Christian, a British writer, and Satine, a French burlesque performer. Moulin Rouge! is a “jukebox” musical, meaning that its score is comprised of previously released popular songs. Film scholar Jane Feuer’s essay “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment” (1995) briefly outlines three “myths” that can be viewed in a typical Hollywood musical: the myth of spontaneity, the myth of integration, and the myth of the audience. Despite the fact that Feuer focuses specifically on three Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals of the 1940s and 50s, Moulin Rouge! fits many of the musical genre tropes that Feuer discusses in her article, despite both the film’s relatively recent release and more unique plotline.

Feuer begins her essay by outlining the musical film’s “most persistent subgenre,” which involves the act of people “‘getting together and putting on a show'” (543). She cites The Jazz Singer (1927) as an example of a “show-business story,” and writes that “a large percentage of the early musicals took for their subjects the world of entertainment: Broadway, vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, burlesque, night clubs, the circus, Tin Pan Alley, and, to a lesser extent, mass entertainment media in the form of radio or Hollywood itself.”

Despite its being released almost eighty years after The Jazz SingerMoulin Rouge! also features a “show-business story” in the form of a historically popular musical sub-genre: the musical within the musical. The film centers on the fact that Christian and his friends are putting on a show, one where Satine has been cast the leading lady. The film relates directly to Feuer’s examples of “burlesque” and “night clubs,” as Satine is the head performer at Paris’ premier burlesque club, the Moulin Rouge. She, along with her boss, Harold Zidler, dream of transforming the club into a real theater, one where Satine can finally prove her abilities as a serious actress. This plan coincides with that of Christian’s friend, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, to create a musical embodying the ideals of France’s Bohemian revolution, “truth, beauty, freedom, and love.” Toulouse recruits Christian as the new writer for his show, Spectacular, Spectacular. The musical will star Satine, and will be put on by Zidler with the help of his financier, the Duke.

The first myth of the musical that Feuer discusses is that of spontaneity. She writes, “The myth of spontaneity operates through what we are shown of the work of production of the respective shows as well as how we are shown it” (548). She cites the technical difficulties that the audience of the film sees in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as evidence of this. Moulin Rouge! shows its characters work on their production from inception all the way to curtain, and many “unplanned” things happen along the way. When Toulouse has his writer impersonate the Duke in order to get Satine to back their production, Christian and company are put in the position of explaining the plot of the then unfinished Spectacular, Spectacular to the real Duke-spontaneously.

Christian makes up a plot that is essentially the plot of Moulin Rouge!, only set in India; the poor sitar player and the “most beautiful courtesan in the world” are in love, but the courtesan much choose between her true love and a sense of security, as she had made a plan to seduce the wealthy maharajah in order to save her kingdom. This is essentially the same plot of the film, where instead it is set in France, featuring a poor British writer and a beautiful burlesque performer/prostitute as the protagonists, and the possessive Duke as the antagonist.

The scene where Christian, Toulouse, Zidler, and Satine must explain the plot of Spectacular, Spectacular to the Duke is an example of the unplanned musical number, the myth of spontaneity. The play’s script has not yet been written, and therefore Christian leads the way as the group makes it up and pitches it to the Duke, their source of funding, on the spot.  Feuer writes, “The impression of spontaneity in these numbers stems from a type of bricolage; the performers make use of props at hand-curtains, movie paraphernalia, umbrellas, furniture-to create the imaginary world of musical performance” (546). Of course, the group presents their concept to the Duke using song (“The Pitch”). They use whatever they can find in Satine’s room, which happens to be India-themed, as bricolage to incorporate into their story, showing the Duke the “imaginary world” that they have created in less than two minutes.

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While Moulin Rouge! is an example of the “show-business story,” its number of spontaneous of musical performances unrelated to its show-within-the-show far outweighs those which are related, and therefore not spontaneous. Feuer writes of the the “narrative strategy typical of the backstage musical,” which includes “musical interludes, usually in the form of rehearsal sequences detailing the maturation of the show…interspersed with parallel dramatic scenes detailing the maturation of the off-stage love affairs” (543). An example of this is the cross-cutting between Christian and Satine interacting on-set and off-set, where the two serenade each other with “Come What May,” before being joined by the entire cast of the play during a rehearsal. The illusion of spontaneity in Moulin Rouge! is reinforced by the parallels between the play and the film.

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Feuer goes on to explain “the myth of integration,” where she writes, “the self-reflective musical asserts the integrative effect of musical performance. Successful performances are intimately bound up with success in love, with the integration of the individual into a community or a group, and even with the merger of high art with popular art” (549). Like the archetype of the self-reflective musical, “successful” musical sequences integrated throughout Moulin Rouge! help to move the narrative along. At the beginning of the film, Christian becomes integrated into Toulouse’s group of Bohemian thespians when he beautifully sings the lyrics, “The hills are alive with the sound of music…” at the beginning of the film (“The Sound of Music/Children of the Revolution”).

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After pitching Spectacular, Spectacular to the Duke, Christian is able to engage Satine in a duet love story (“Elephant Love Medley”). This scene marks the beginning of their love story, as Christian succeeds in getting Satine to fall for him (success in love).

Feuer uses an example to back up her claim that a successful performance makes for successful integration in a musical. She writes, “In Singin’ in the Rain, the success of the musical film brings about the final union of [main characters] Don and Kathy,” also referring to success in love (549). However, in Moulin Rouge!, towards the end, the integration of the play and the film rely on a botched performance in order to bind the two together in a powerful parallel. Feuer writes, “This hall-of-mirrors effect emphasizes the unity-giving function of the musical both for the couples and audiences in the film and for the audience of the film” (550). Like Don and Kathy become their characters, Christian and Satine become the characters of Spectacular, Spectacular, as the two have a secret affair that has to be kept from Zidler (who plays the evil maharajah) and from the Duke, who is the real-life villain in the film. Feuer writes, “By promoting audience identification with the collectively produced shows, the myth of integration seeks to give the audience a sense of participation in the creation of the film itself” (551)

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Finally, Feuer discusses the “myth of audience,” which centers on the idea that “the use of theatrical audiences in the films provides a point of identification for audiences of the film” (553). For instance, the spectacle of Satine throughout all of Moulin Rouge! is heightened for the film’s audience when we see the audience within the film react. When she first appears in the film during her burlesque routine, the crowd is in awe, staring up at her like she is an angel coming down from heaven. When she performs in Spectacular, Spectacular, the crowd instantly recognizes her and cheers. Their reactions give the film’s audience an idea of how to feel about Satine, and how to react when we see her come onscreen.

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Why viewers of Moulin Rouge! may react a certain way to the film may lie in the fact that there are parts of this film that are inherently familiar. In addition to being the third installment of Baz Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy,” Moulin Rouge! is a jukebox musical, meaning that its score is comprised of popular songs previously released by other artists. Feuer writes, “Other self-reflective musicals make use of audience response to songs from previous stage musicals or films” (554).

Feuer’s conclusion is that myths of entertainment are carried by the musical that references itself, or in her words, the self-reflective musical. She writes, “All ritual involves the celebration of shared values and beliefs; the ritual function of the musical is to reaffirm and articulate the place that entertainment occupies in its audience’s psychic lives” (555). Much like the Bohemians sharing their values of truth, beauty, freedom, and love through their musical, Spectacular, SpectacularMoulin Rouge! provides meaningful entertainment to the spectator through the use of spontaneity, integration, and audience.

“The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment” reads, “Musical entertainment claims for its own all natural and joyous performances in art and in life” (549). The life and death of Satine and her love story with Christian are celebrated through music, and both the musical play and musical film within Moulin Rouge! have the ability to transcend to popular art through the use of genre.

Works Cited

Feuer, Jane. “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 2.3. (1977): 313-326. Rpt. in Film Genre Reader IV. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2012. 543-57. Print.