Spectaular, Spectacular and the Phenomenon of Cultural Hijacking

Upon re-watching Moulin Rouge! (2001) for this project, and this was the first time I had watched it, I was simultaneously shocked and thrilled to see the opening number of Spectacular, Spectacular was Bollywood themed. After my initial “hype” had settled, I became confused, as earlier in the movie, I had also noticed the Indian theme of Satine’s dressing room. I was prompted with many questions: Why had director Baz Luhrmann thought to include such an obvious homage to Bollywood? What does it mean that 99.9% of the actors in Spectacular, Spectacular, a play that takes place in India, are white? Could this be considered cultural appropriation? If so, is it conscious or subconscious on Luhrmann’s part?

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Indian scholars Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti explore the implications of Luhrmann’s nod to Bollywood cinema in their essay titled “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Gopal and Moorti begin their discussion by giving context to Luhrmann’s use of Indian influence; he was inspired by a Bollywood film he and his wife Catherine Martin had seen while abroad in northern India in 1995. They quote Luhrmann, as he says, “‘We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi because we understood everything” (29-30). It’s safe to assume that Luhrmann meant that the narrative of the Bollywood was so transparent and universal that he was able to understand despite not knowing the native language or having any subtitles to help.

Gopal and Moorti immediately establish that they believe that Luhrmann may have meant well, but ultimately overstepped his cinematic boundaries. They write,

Though a Bollywood film is not a “musical” in the sense that Hollywood gives to the term, Luhrmann (mis)translates it as such and then proceeds to use this other cinematic form as the basis for “providing a new vernacular for the musical” in the West. Created in this mix of admiration, misunderstanding, and bricolage, Luhrmann’s homage to Bollywood arrived in the West at a moment marked by trendy citations of Hindi cinema in popular culture (30).

The scholars analyze the different aspects that Moulin Rouge! seems to borrow from Bollywood cinema, both on what I will call macro and micro-levels. “Bollywood in Drag” reads, “Few would recognize that the heroine Satine’s transformation from conniving showgirl to tragic heroine recalls the tawaif (courtesan) figure in popular Hindi cinema, while the love-addicted hero, Christian, relies on the sentimental codes of Bollywood masculinity” (30-31).  Character tropes would fall under the macro-level, as would major storylines and the use of song and dance, all important facets of the Bollywood genre and of Moulin Rouge! Gopal and Moorti write,

There are striking resemblances between Moulin Rouge! and classic tawaif films like Pakeezah (The Pure One, dir. Kamal Amrohi, India, 1971) and Umrao Jaan (dir. Muzaffar Ali, India, 1981). In these narratives, romantic love brings the courtesan’s subjectivity to crisis. No longer willing to be a public commodity, the courtesan wants to give herself only to her lover. Like any other modern individual, she desires a private self (50).

Satine, a courtesan, views herself as a caged bird that may never be away to fly away. Her lover Christian can only give her a taste of what it’s like, prompting their intense emotional connection through song. Song and dance performances are essential to Indian cinema, as they serve as callbacks to tradition as well as to strong feelings. Gopal and Moorti cite specific songs in Moulin Rouge!, such as “Heroes,” that give off a similiar Bollywood-esque intensity.

Micro-levels of Bollywood inspiration include specific melodramatic sequences, as well as Luhrmann directly taking a detail from a Bollywood movie and inserting it into his own film. Gopal and Moorti remark on the dual-ending of Spectacular, Spectacular and Moulin Rouge!, in which the ending within the film’s imaginary is a happy one for the audience in the theater, but after the curtain closes, the movie viewers know that Satine has died. In other words, “The film spectator is treated to a climax that follows the narrational protocols of the Bollywood masala movie, assembling multiple generic threads including the chase, the farce, sentimental romance, and tragic melodrama” (52).

The opening scene to Spectacular, Spectacular, which I have previously mentioned, samples a song from a previous Bollywood film.

 

“Bollywood in Drag” reads, “The scene commences with the only overt reference to Bollywood cinema—a sample from the song ‘Chamma Chamma’— which serves as a prelude to Satine’s opening number. Performed by Alka Yagnik, this song from China Gate (dir. Rajkumar Santoshi, India, 1998) was a hit in India and among diasporic audiences” (52). In the clip below, 0:38 to 1:15 is the sample that Luhrmann took.

Within the “Hindi Sad Diamonds,” sequence, white actors and actresses appear to be singing (they are dubbed, as “Chamma Chamma” is a sample) but also dancing in the traditional Bollywood style. While Moulin Rouge! does take place in France and not in India, there are other multicultural characters, such as the actor who is solely referred to as “The Argentinian.” A white woman seen singing a Bollywood song could be termed cultural appropriation, offensive, as it “whitewashes” cultural identity. People are far more aware now of cultural appropriation and whitewashing than they woman were in 2001, but it still occurs- there was a recent uproar about Scarlett Johansson portraying an Asian woman in an upcoming film.

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Ultimately, Gopal and Moorti agree that Luhrmann is perpetuating cultural appropriation to a degree. They cite the example of the only distinctive character of color in the film, Chocolat, who is seldom seen or heard except for when he is saving Satine from near-death experiences; he saves her when she falls off the swing, and when the Duke attacks her. The scholars write,

Given this savior role, it is apt therefore that in Spectacular, Spectacular he appears as a blue- skinned god — the playful and amorous Hindu deity Krishna who presides over the story—but his is only a visual presence, not one that facilitates the narrative movement. As a body of color, Chocolat encapsulates the problematic position offered to third- world subjects and spectators of color in the commodification of exotica: they do not control the positions allocated to them in the cultural marketplace, and often they can be used as substitute representatives for any “exotic” culture whatsoever, just as an African is used to depict a Hindu deity. Chocolat’s only agency in the film is in the service of the white woman (55).

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In conclusion, when it comes cultural appropriation, I think that the narrative aspects of Bollywood that Moulin Rouge! takes are okay, but the excessive set design (Satine’s Elephant Room, the replica Taj Mahal in the Moulin Rouge), the direct sampling of Bollywood music, and unfitting character potrayals (Satine and Zidler portray Indian royalty, Chocolat the Hindu god in Spectacular, Spectacular) makes for a convincing argument. While it’s good that Hollywood films are inspired by Bollywood, as it makes more people aware of India’s booming filmic industry, too much copying and pasting can lead to cultural hijacking.

Works Cited

Gopal, Sangita, and Sujata Moorti. “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Camera Obscura 25.75 (2010): 28-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

“Never fall in love with a woman who sells herself”: Satine and Her Songs as Symbols of Consumerism and Objectification

From the moment the viewer sees Satine enter her first scene, lowered from the ceiling on a rhinestone encrusted swing, it is clear that Luhrmann’s leading lady is both glamorous and sexy. The courtesan, dressed in a glittering leotard and top hat, immediately launches into her first musical number, a mash-up of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Her performance, marked by a breathy voice and gyrating hips, titillates the onscreen male audience, sending them into a sex-crazed frenzy. Because they cannot “have” Satine, they resort to consorting with another one of the “Diamond Dogs,” as is the name of the band of prostitutes at the Moulin Rouge. This is just what Harold Zidler, the club’s owner and head pimp, was hoping for.

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At the Moulin Rouge, the female body is a commodity, and Satine’s is the most prized of them all. Referred to as “The Sparkling Diamond,” Satine is Zidler’s top seller, as any man who looks at her is instantly enamored. This is exactly what happens with characters Christian and the Duke. Throughout Moulin Rouge!, Satine is constantly objectified, and is considered a piece of property or useful tool for all of the principle male characters to take advantage of. At the same time, as evidenced by her signature song, Satine is also the personification of consumerism, embodying materialism and capitalist desires as she both supplies goods (sex) and demands them, showing off a luxurious style and lusting after success as an actress. Ultimately, Satine lacks agency, as her identity is reinforced by several of the musical sequences in the film, which either emphasize her objectification or her role as consumerist symbol.

In the essay “The Show Must Go On: Making Money Glamorizing Oppression,” scholars Marina Della Giusta and Laura Scuriatti explore the glamorization of Satine and the prostitute image in Moulin Rouge! as well as the film character’s influence on the early 2000s fashion industry and female consumer response to the courtesan-inspired clothing. They remark on Satine’s rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend/Material Girl,” questioning whether or not the performance is an empowering one.

The deployment of the songs ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ may be read indeed as the exposure of a view of success based on accumulation of capital and of the power relations subsuming the romantic idea of love in capitalism, as well as a positive affirmation of empowerment – a type of empowerment only reachable through the exercise of prostitution, in a society which capitalizes on such polarization of roles ascribed to women (35-36).

At first glance, Satine appears liberated in this scene, given the fact that she is being endlessly adored by the crowd and is singing about what men can provide for her rather than what she can provide for them. However, this sequence introduces the viewer to Satine’s unequal relationship with each of the principle male characters: Zidler, Christian, the Duke, and from my own observation, with Toulouse, the play producer. Zidler is introduced as “both her pimp and her father figure,” setting up a rendezvous between Satine and the Duke as though he is her keeper. Satine, Zidler’s best employee looking for a promotion from prostitution to acting, is a willing participant in this transaction initially, but feigns her own agency by telling the crowd it’s “lady’s choice.” Della Giusta and Scuriatti write,

Moreover, at the very moment when Satine ‘chooses’ the Duke, she sings a song made up of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Material Girls’: these elements, we think, derive from stereotypical prejudices and ideas around prostitution. Indeed, prostitutes are often presented as universally and always freely choosing their profession, an idea that serves to hide the social and economic conditions in which much prostitution flourishes. The songs and act performed by Satine present prostitution as a profession which may enhance a woman’s social and economic status (34).

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Satine reprises “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” during “Hindi Sad Diamonds” in Spectacular, Spectacular. She wears an opulent diamond necklace, a gift from the maharajah (The Duke).

While Satine certainly does not seem to outright hate her job, at least at first glance, it is established from the beginning that she is only participating because it gives her the chance to perform (acting is her true passion) as well as the means to uphold such a luxurious lifestyle, one including “diamonds” and “material” possessions, fashionable outfits, a lavish living quarters, etc. She wants to sleep with the Duke, but only to ensure that her dream of being an actress can be fully realized through his financing of the Toulouse’s play, Spectacular, Spectacular. Both Zidler and Toulouse take advantage of Satine’s dream: Zidler wants to be able to transform the Moulin Rouge, and to make more money as a result, and both Toulouse and Christian successfully trick Satine into thinking that Christian is the Duke, so as to further their own agenda of putting on their play at the club.

Once a relationship between Christian and Satine is established in the film, Christian and the Duke immediately wage war over the ownership of Satine. In many ways it becomes a competition between the poor “lover boy” and the rich aristocrat- Christian woos her with songs while the Duke impresses her with gifts. The Duke makes statements that unmistakably show how he views Satine; when he signs the financial contract, he tells Zidler that only he must have access to Satine, saying, “I just don’t like other people touching my things.” He also appears to identify heavily with the evil maharajah character in Spectacular, Spectacular, intoning his statement, “She is mine.” The Duke is also a symbol of capitalism; he is a member of the corrupt upperclass (perhaps the bourgeois since the setting is France), and he manipulates Zidler and Satine by holding his money over their heads, becoming an enemy to the Bohemian revolution and their ideals in the process.

Della Giusta and Scuriatti also discuss the “economics of prostitution as a critique to bourgeois and capitalist ideology” as well as the fulfillment of “the typical Hollywood love story.” The two write, “The image of the courtesan is here filtered through its symmetrically opposite stereotype: the virgin. Indeed, the precondition for the Duke’s ‘investment’ (as it is described in the film) is that Satine is a virgin” (34).

When Satine misses the Duke’s dinner invitation after falling ill, Zidler scrambles to appease the Duke, lying that she is confessing her sins in order to purify herself for him. The Duke is delighted by this prospect. Virginity appears to raise Satine’s overall worth in his eyes; after all, owning a shiny new car is far better than driving a used rental, and Zidler is a convincing salesman. Zidler and the Duke then perform “Like a Virgin” together, respectively singing, “She’s so fine and she’s thine,” and “She’s so fine, and she’s mine.”

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The irony of a prostitute being a virgin is not lost on Della Giusta and Scuriatti. “The Show Must Go On” reads, “[Satine] is a virgin because she had never loved until she met Christian, and because she is sold to the Duke as a ‘virgin’ – a condition which increases her market value and heightens her dramatic sacrifice” (33). The two make the point that while Christian is aware that she is not physically a virgin, he believes that she is one in the sense that she has never been with someone she truly loves before. They write, “The romantic relationship between her and the writer relies on her taking on the characteristics of a virtuous woman. There seems to be no alternative offered to Satine but to conform to the role of a virgin” (36).

While Christian knows he is the only one who gets to enjoy a personal relationship with Satine (and for the majority of the film, the only one who enjoys a physical relationship as well, as Satine eludes the Duke’s advances at every turn), he still becomes jealous when Satine is not with him, although he denies it. He becomes angry every time he does not know where she’s been, always assuming it is with the Duke, despite her declarations of love for him only. At one point, Satine tries to break up with Christian for his own sanity. She tells him, “On opening night I have to sleep with the Duke, and the jealousy will drive you mad.”

When Satine breaks up with him definitively after she learns that the Duke will kill him if she doesn’t, Christian becomes consumed with jealous rage, attacking Satine onstage during opening night of Spectacular, Spectacular. He takes on the role of the sitar player as he throws money at her, screaming, “I’ve paid my whore,” indicating that their relationship was never love and therefore he should pay her for her “services.”

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After this incident, Satine and Christian reprise “Come What May,” and reunite, proving that “love” does conquer all. Shortly after, Satine loses her battle with consumption and dies in Christian’s arms. Della Giusta and Scuriatti write,

 Satine, who cannot ultimately be both a courtesan and a virgin, has to die in order to become a masturbatory fantasy for all the male characters: for Christian and the Duke she will fulfill the role of the pure bride, to whom they can both lay claim as their own exclusive property (35).

Keeping Satine’s personification of consumerism and objectification in mind, this ending does not seem to lend itself well to a positive Marxist or feminist reading. Satine lacks agency in every aspect of her life: Zidler tells her what to do and withholds information from her (he waits to tell her that she is dying), the Duke manipulates her into doing his will, and even Christian, her lover, becomes possessive and distrustful of her. At no point in the narrative does she have the upper-hand against men, except maybe while performing, as she seems to make both Christian, the Duke, and other male suitors squirm when displaying her “temptress” persona.

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In the end, while the Duke does not “get the girl” as Christian does, he wins in that Satine dies, fulfilling a sort of “if I can’t have her, nobody can” ideal. Once again, the bourgeois has successfully triumphed over the poor. While the two do reconcile, it can be difficult for the viewer to accept what Christian has done to Satine; he has humiliated her onstage, and thrown her profession back in her face. Additionally, the film idealizes and romanticizes gender stereotypes and female oppression, reinforcing the virgin “Madonna”/whore dichotomy, the objectification of women, seen as property, and the power of the patriarchy. Satine unfortunately dies as she lived-a caged bird, unable to fly away, or alternatively, buy her way out.

Works Cited

Giusta, Marina Della, and Laura Scuriatti. “The Show Must Go On: Making Money Glamorizing Oppression.” European Journal Of Women’s Studies 12.1 (2005): 31-44. PsycINFO. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

 

 

 

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.