English - Visually Impaired: Dolby Digital Surround
2 Audio commentary
Behind the scenes footage
Moulin Rouge - SE
20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox .
R4 . COLOR . 122 mins .
M15+ . PAL
The story begins!
If there’s anyone in this part of the world that hasn’t heard about Moulin Rouge sometime this year, we’d be very surprised. The movie’s theatrical release sparked a publicity frenzy that was almost unequalled for an Australian movie (well, an almost-Australian movie - it was, after all, bankrolled by Fox in the US, and the fact that a former Australian owns that company doesn’t make it any less American). For a while, it was impossible to open a newspaper or magazine without being faced with some cheesy feature, photo, blurb, fact or interview related to Moulin Rouge and, of course, “our Nicole” (whose own personal problems at the time of the film’s release outdid the film itself for press space). It was enough to put a person off seeing the thing altogether - and indeed, it certainly helped this reviewer put the film on the see-it-later list during its theatrical run. But the film was a hit regardless - though it only finally paid back its rather large budget this month and started turning a profit - and it was, of course, great to see so many people excited about going to see a movie that was made in Australia largely by Australian people.
The man behind Moulin Rouge, writer/producer/director Baz Luhrmann, is best known by most of the world for his films. But Luhrmann’s background is on the live stage (his production of Puccini’s opera La Boheme is still available on DVD through ABC Video) and it’s that craft that always seems to permeate his movie work. But Baz’s theatrical bent has never been more apparent than it is in Moulin Rouge, which plays out like a massively-budgeted Broadway musical - albeit one where the set-changing takes place at Superman speed and with a multi-million dollar budget! The director’s own take on this and his two preceding movies is that they’re designed to involve the audience, to remind them that they’re watching a slice of fantasy rather than escapist reality - and that itself is an approach you would expect when going to see a live theatre production. It’s fair to say that most directors who’d dare attempt to do this would fail shamefully; given his background, the fact that Luhrmann succeeds so seemingly effortlessly is not surprising, but the sheer volume and scale of the ever-more-obnoxious stylistic moves he makes in his films has now officially reached the you-can’t-do-that-in-the-movies stage. Except that Baz can, and he does.
Let's set the scene
There’s not a good deal of plot in Moulin Rouge; what is there is heavily reminiscent of the story told in Luhrmann’s previous film, Romeo And Juliet. Once again, a socially unacceptable but utterly passionate romance is played out from courtship to bitter tragic end, and though Romeo And Juliet - written by some ancient hack named Shakespeare - played out its story centuries before the dawn-of-the-20th-century tale in Moulin Rouge, the structural elements of both are very similar. So too is the filmmaking style; Strictly Ballroom might have hinted at what was to come, but Romeo And Juliet rewrote the rule book on just about everything in mainstream cinema, annoying the hell out of a lot of people in the process (but thrilling just as many, including this reviewer) with its adventurous, hyperactive editing, its visual flair and especially in its near-constant use of music to help tell the story. Moulin Rouge takes much of the technique used in Romeo And Juliet and ups the ante tenfold, making extensive use of digital effects, models and elaborate sets to create a fantasy world that’s simultaneously surreal and inexplicably involving. The connections between the two films don’t end there, by the way - aside from the fact that they make up the second and third instalments of what Luhrmann calls his “Red Curtain Trilogy”, the marketing taglines used for each film are more than a little similar (for Romeo it was hope-despair-tragedy-love, while here it’s truth-beauty-freedom-love).
But we were talking about plot. It won’t take long. Impoverished British-with-a-strange-tendency-to-lapse-into-Scottish-brogue writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris in the hope of finding his fortune at the helm of a typewriter. But soon he’s dragged along to Paris’s notorious Moulin Rouge nightclub, where he lays eyes on the voluptuous courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), the two of them soon falling in love. But Satine has made a pact with the devil - or in this case, the visiting English Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh, obviously having an enormously good time with his role) - and as good as promised to be his as long as he backs her new show, hopefully helping her to become a Serious Actress. Thing is, Christian’s writing the show, and the Duke isn’t entirely happy about it. Stuff happens. The end.
Fear not the skinny plot. Because what makes Moulin Rouge work is the very thinness of the story - it’s classic mythology transformed into a new setting, nothing more, and that allows the audience to relax, let the smaller bits of their brains follow the simple story and leave the rest of their hopefully open minds to soak up the good stuff about the film - the emotions, the sounds, the sublime visuals and the chemistry between the two leads. It’s a funny thing - while watching Moulin Rouge it’s hard not to get swept up by the sheer fun of it all, but half an hour later you’re asking yourself whether anything much actually happened. Ask no more; nothing much did, and it doesn’t matter.
Better the Fairy you know!
On occasion the visuals get the better of even the simple forward thrust of the film; no more so than in the first 25 minutes or so. Make no mistake, it’s a great opening to a film - the imagery is rich and thrilling, the editing is kinetic and the experience of it all is quite gobsmacking (in fact, Luhrmann says during one of his commentaries on this DVD that he made “an active choice to slap the audience around”). The opening club sequence, though, goes on just that little bit too long, and the editing and effects that immediately precede it are so over-the-top you’re left only with an open mouth, great technical appreciation and absolutely no clue what’s going on. Within minutes of this section, the movie turns into a kind of live cartoon (yes, complete with the sound effects!) before finally settling down, about a half hour in, to a tone that signals what the movie really wants to be. Seen a second time, knowing what’s to come, the opening makes more sense and works better, but if this is your first time in front of Moulin Rouge, don’t be alarmed - remember, Baz did this to you in Romeo And Juliet as well. The fast-editing technique, incidentally, is employed again later, in the final act, and works exceptionally well; really, it comes down to how long it takes you to settle into the style of the film.
Your hapless reviewer went into Moulin Rouge fully expecting not to have an especially good time. So why does this blend of hyperactive style and hand-on-heart romance work so well? Ultimately - aside from the obvious fun the director and cast are having, of course - it’s the music. First and foremost is Craig Armstrong’s magnificent score; this is one case where director and composer click together effortlessly, and the success of the film’s more emotional scenes owes as much to the sonic canvas that Armstrong provides as it does to Luhrmann’s vision of the scene itself. Along with this marvellously expansive score, there’s a massive collection of reworked pop songs and old standards (from Madonna, David Bowie and even Lamb’s Gorecki to Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and other older, more unexpected surprises), performed by cast members as well as the likes of Fatboy Slim, Beck, Kylie Minogue (who pops up as an absinthe-fuelled Green Fairy) and, of course, those Lady Marmalade girls (and incidentally, at this point we offer an honorary box of Nurofen to whoever had to clear copyright on all of the songs used by the characters throughout!) Much of the pop-song stuff is orchestrated by Armstrong as well, and special mention must be made of the man’s sheer skill at somehow turning some of middle-aged music’s most turgid ballads into listenable, moving set-pieces. All of this fits neatly with the general mise-en-scene; ultimately Moulin Rouge looks and feels like one of those big, bombastic Hollywood musicals of old, from the extensive use of sound stages, fairytale-style sets and matte paintings for “outdoor” scenes (apparently everything in this movie was filmed inside Fox Studios in Sydney, an impressive achievement indeed) to the characters’ habit of bursting into song to help push the story along. The amusing catch is that here, the songs they burst into are mostly ones you already know, worked (and often subtly rewritten) into the storyline.
Many people disliked Moulin Rouge with a passion. Many more utterly loved it. And that, believe it or not, is a Good Thing - at a time when nine out of ten major-studio films take safe options and no risks, it’s wonderful to see a big, obnoxious and relentlessly individual movie such as this. You’ll either click with it or you won’t - but either way, we’re betting that you’ll be blown away by its sheer craft, from the opening frames (with a unique take on the use of the 20th Century Fox intro) to the gorgeously-designed closing credits which, though spooled way too fast, is possibly the most elaborately crafted end credit crawl seen to date.
After a solid start with some small problems, Fox has been getting better and better at the art of transferring feature films to DVD, and this transfer of Moulin Rouge sets a new benchmark - it’s as good as flawless, which leaves us with a small dilemma - what to actually say about it. Obviously this film would have been transferred carefully to high definition video as soon as the final cut was done earlier this year, and the movie’s often-extreme colour palette is rendered perfectly, arguably looking better than it did in the cinema. Shadow detail is fine, as are black levels for the most part (there are some sequences where there’s a distinct lack of solid black, but this appears to have been the intention of cinematographer Don McAlpine, who does some of the best work of his exceptional career on this film). The copious use of rich red colours in much of the movie presents no problem at all on DVD, where they leap out of the screen at you.
Lavish sets aplenty
It’s hard to imagine having to see Moulin Rouge in anything other than a widescreen format; Luhrmann makes extensive use of the 2.35:1 Panavision frame throughout (the movie was shot with anamorphic lenses) and is presented here in its correct aspect ratio, enhanced for 16:9 screens.
Despite the complexity of the source material, the video here is encoded at a fairly modest average bitrate. However, whoever is handling Fox’s DVD compression these days knows their business well; no artefacts are to be seen anywhere, and even the over-the-top opening sequence doesn’t cause encoding problems.
Placing the inevitable layer change must have been a challenge, though - there’s barely a break throughout most of the film - but when it does turn up it’s in as good a place as any, and fairly quickly handled by the player. It does, however, seem jarring regardless, but that’s more to do with the free-flowing style in which the movie is constructed.
Those who still find the time to complain about what a bad lot we get being stuck over here in region 4 might like to consider this particular title (along with a few others released recently). Not only does Australia get Moulin Rouge on DVD before the rest of the world - and in better packaging as well - but we also get a rather nice bonus that other editions do not - a DTS 5.1 soundtrack. Oddly, the inclusion of the DTS track is not mentioned on the back cover of the packaging, but rest assured it’s there. It’s encoded at the lower DTS bitrate of 768kb/s (most likely for space reasons) but offers those equipped to use DTS a chance to hear this impressive soundtrack with added fidelity.
The default soundtrack is, of course, Dolby Digital 5.1 - and if you’re not DTS-equipped, there’s no reason to feel left out, as this is a hugely impressive soundtrack. Reproducing the movie’s audio accurately and without unwanted artefacts, it shows just what Dolby Digital is capable of when good encoding - and of course, a good-quality source - is thrown at it. With virtually no hiss audible at normal listening volumes, the dialogue is crisp and immediate, while the music is well-defined, warm and wonderfully spread across the sound stage without ever resorting to gimmickry. Those who like their full-scale surround sound might be disappointed - there’s not a lot of whiz-bang action here except for during some of the film’s more surreal linking sequences, and a great many scenes are pretty much in straight mono when the music’s not involved - but you get a very natural sense of space throughout (which is odd, really, for such an unnatural movie!)
A somewhat ironic inclusion, given the heavily visual nature of the film, is an audio track titled “Audio for the Visually Impaired”. Rarely offered on Australian discs, this track offers the movie audio in 2.0 surround with a Scottish-accented narrator describing what’s happening on-screen throughout. A great idea that will undoubtedly be welcomed by sight-impaired fans of the film, it’s very well produced and could well make for an entertaining talking-book-style experience with the TV turned off, if you were so inclined.
Note that you cannot change audio streams with your remote while playing the movie; this is common on discs that include DTS audio tracks.
It’s wonderful to see the market being lavished with two-disc DVD sets containing reams of information and about the movie in question. Earlier this week, Final Fantasy raised the bar in terms of combining an intensely film-themed disc design with copious extra material; now Moulin Rouge does the same. The excellent set of extras here are once again spread over both discs, with the bulk of them on the second; despite a small technical quibble about the commentaries, this reviewer’s going to be all-out bold and make this the third disc in his reviewing week to score a DVDnet Gold award - in this case, for the combination of superlative video and audio transfer, the inclusion of a DTS audio track, the utterly beautiful animated menus on both discs, lovely packaging with a well-done booklet that smells seriously nice (!), and enough extras to keep you involved for many, many hours.
Audio Commentary - Baz Luhrmann (director, co-producer, co-writer), Catherine Martin (production designer), Donald McAlpine (director of photography): The first of two commentaries concerns itself with the myriad details of the very, very complex production of the movie, and there’s a large amount of fascinating information and trivia to be gleaned here. The fact that all three are in the same room at the same time is a distinct advantage - they react well to each other’s comments, and silent points are few and far between. One complaint, though - like so many Fox DVDs, the commentary is encoded at the incredibly stingy bitrate of 96Kb/s - which would be fine, as long as the track was in mono (as it should be - all three voices are panned front and centre). But as always, Fox has had this one encoded as a low-bitrate stereo track, and that means scratchy, tinny audio that is bordering on unpleasant to listen to. It’s not a disc space problem, either - for despite the high-quality movie encoding, the DTS soundtrack, the visually-impaired soundtrack, some other video extras and the two commentaries, there’s still over a gigabyte of free space on this disc - plenty of room for these tracks to have been encoded at a more acceptable bitrate.
Audio Commentary - Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (writers): Here, Luhrmann and his co-screenwriter Pearce focus on the development of the script, the characters and of course the story itself. After this one, you’ll be seeing three times as much plot in the movie…! Once again, it’s lively, informative and enjoyable (with plenty of insight into what makes Luhrmann’s dramatic vision tick), though probably of greater interest to true devotees of this team’s work than to the general audience. The same complaint about low-bitrate encoding made above applies here as well.
Behind The Red Curtain: Similar to the “Follow The White Rabbit” feature on the Matrix DVD (a feature used by a few others as well), here you play the film back until a small Minogue-like fairy icon pops up in the bottom left corner of the film frame, then hit your remote’s “enter” key to be taken to some background information about that part of the production. There are actually not many fairies to be found - the first ones pop up near the start of the movie, but you’ll wait a while for some of the others. All in all, there are eight of them, leading you to an impressive 22-odd minutes of extra material all up, most of it very worthwhile indeed - there’s a better look at the production of the film here than you get in the main “making-of” featurette on disc two. Speaking of which…
Ok, now cough.
(All video material on disc two is in 4:3 mode unless otherwise stated; all menus and still frames, however, are 16:9 enhanced. Oh, and there are some easter eggs scattered in places on this disc, but we’re not telling you where!)
The Making Of Moulin Rouge: Basically an extended (26 minute) promotional featurette, this one’s long on hype and short on info, though there is some interesting behind-the-scenes footage here and a little insight into the effort required to put the whole thing together. It would have been nice to have a real making-of doco (you know, the ones where everyone doesn’t keep saying how great everything and everyone is) but as an introduction to what is a rather extensive second disc it works well. Not 16:9 enhanced (due to its cable TV origins) this featurette suffers from some slight MPEG encoding problems (in the form of macro blocking) in places, though it’s not overly troublesome.
The Stars: Introduced by a subtle 50-second video piece, this menu leads to an unusual cast-and-crew bio section, where Kidman and McGregor as well as John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent and Richard Roxburgh are profiled via short mini-documentary/interviews running a few minutes each. All up, there’s around 14 minutes of video here.
This Story Is About…: Three offerings here; an interview with Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce about the script, Pearce talking about an early treatment of the script featuring, err, “Count von Groovy” (!) and a third menu item that leads to a screen where you can select one of four collections of pages from various script revisions to page through (stored in Fox’s usual chapter-per-page way). Video content for this section is just over six minutes, with the script pages sure to keep avid Bazfans busy a lot longer - the rough draft script offered here is presented in its entirety over some 280-odd pages!
The Cutting Room: First up in this section is an interview with Baz Luhrmann and Moulin Rouge’s remarkable editor Jill Bilcock, running just over three and a half minutes and full of interesting information as well as a four and a half minute showcase of Baz’s “previsualisation” tapes, which are very “pre” indeed! From here you can also access an “Abandoned Edits” section with two alternate cuts of scenes from preview screenings, two from an early assembly edit of the film and, best of all, a “previsualisation” version of the “Green Fairy” sequence featuring “Serena the Visual FX Coordinator” in the place that would eventually be filled by Kylie Minogue (and doing a perfectly fine fairy-like job of it, too!) There’s about 13 minutes of footage here, all of it of modest quality (this stuff’s off rough tapes, after all) with all but the assembly-edit stuff also extensively timecoded below the letterboxed film frame.
The bad ass chicks of the Moulin Rouge
The Dance: An extensive section where Luhrmann takes advantage of the DVD format to offer longer cuts of three of the dances (or “production numbers” if you’re an old-Hollywood type!) from the movie, as well as a bonus one which he doesn’t mention in his video introduction - about 15 minutes of footage all up, all with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio as well (but annoyingly not in 16:9 format visually). All except that unmentioned one can be played either straight through as edited, or as multi-angle versions with four angles to choose from on your remote (plus a fifth “index” angle”). The multi-angle versions are fun, but you can’t have any of the angles full-screen - this is more of a fun plaything. Incidentally, the Can-Can multi-angle segment is mysteriously shorter than the single-angle version. Also from this section is a “Choreography” menu, containing an interview with choreographer John O’Connell (6 minutes) as well as footage of the rehearsals and first performances of the dances for the crew (13 minutes).
The Music: As the title suggests, this section covers the hugely important musical element of the movie, starting off with a nine and a half minute featurette called The Musical Journey - which features interviews with all the key musical collaborators involved in the film, including Craig Armstrong and Marius De Vries; there’s a lot that’s worthwhile here, and it also shows how closely involved Luhrmann was with the musical element of the movie. Then we have a separate three and a half minute interview with Fatboy Slim (that’s Norman Cook, for those of you who remember The Housemartins!) who did the Can-Can for the soundtrack, the full music video for the “pop” version of Come What May (which in this form, with Ewan McGregor’s vocal in full flight, sounds disturbingly like an A-Ha single!) and finally the immodestly-titled Lady Marmalade Phenomenon section, which offers two versions of the big hit single from the film (a song originally a hit for Labelle in the 1970s, performed for the movie by current popkids Christina Aguilera, L’il Kim, Mya and Pink). The first is the complete MTV Music Awards performance, the second the complete music video clip (which also features co-producer Missy Elliott). Now you can have both the performances that made Aguilera’s granny see red on the one handy disc!
The Design: First up in this section is an interview with production designer and co-costume designer Catherine Martin, running six and a half minutes, as well as a two and a half minute interview with co-costume designer Angus Strathie. Then we have two sub-menus leading to extensive still-picture collections: Set Design (nine image collections) and Costume Design (four image collections). But wait - there’s more! From this section you can also head for Graphic Design - which runs a 16:9 scrolling loop of the graphic art that makes the Paris in the movie look like Paris rather than the former Sydney Showgrounds - and Smoke And Mirrors, a sub-section that offers insights from the Animal Logic effects team on some of their work for the project. Two video items are here: The Evolution of the Intro and The Green Fairy, running about eight minutes total. Kylie Minogue fans will be especially interested in the Green Fairy section; effects buffs will love all of it.
Marketing: The final section on this exhaustive extras disc covers the selling of the finished film, starting with the amusingly-named International Sizzle Reel (!!) which is basically just a video compilation of movie clips, TV clips and press; it runs for three of the cheesiest minutes you’ll ever see. The Photo Gallery option leads to a collection of promo photos done for the film by a variety of photographers, while the Little Red Book is a nicely-done picture-book version of the story on still frames. Equally well designed are the various permutations of release posters in the Poster Gallery, but if you want something promotional that moves, head for the Trailers section. Here you’ll find the official theatrical trailer (surprisingly only in letterboxed 4:3 and with stereo audio), the Japanese theatrical trailer (in English, don’t panic!), the theatrical trailer for Romeo And Juliet masquerading as a promo for a DVD Special Edition (hey, Fox and Bazmark, can I trade in my current copy? Ta!) and finally a trailer for the upcoming boxed set of all three of Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain” films, which apparently presents all three as extensive special editions with new packaging and special booklets. Only problem is, those watching this trailer off this disc already have a third of that very same boxed set in their possession - extras, packaging and all! But hey, it is the marketing section of the disc…! Also here, rounding out a massive 7.2 gigabytes of extras that have kept this reviewer intensely reviewing for nearly twelve hours now, are the DVD credits.
With its heart in the right place - and worn proudly on its sleeve - Moulin Rouge is an intensely stylish attempt to update the classic Hollywood musical that will thrill those that click with it. It demands more than a little open-mindedness from its audience, especially in the technically dazzling but visually confronting opening act - but then, this is what Baz Luhrmann does, and if you haven’t warmed to his highly individual filmmaking style by now you probably won’t go here in the first place. Fox’s remarkable DVD set - with a superb video and audio transfer, DTS audio for those who crave it, enough quality extras to keep you occupied for days on end and wonderful menu design throughout - is one of the finest DVD releases of 2001, and is an absolute must for anyone who’s a fan of the fantasy-laden world of Moulin Rouge.