By Alyssa Rosenberg
Todd VanDerWerff, the AV Club’s television editor, made me feel positively ancient this morning when he tweeted out a reminder that Moulin Rouge! would be ten years old on June 1. I didn’t love Baz Luhrmann’s schmaltzy jukebox musical the first time, but it’s since grown on me, and I think for good reason. The movie, which preceded the release of the first iPod on October 23, 2001 by a little less than five months, is the first one to really anticipate the rise of an era when we’d all live our lives accompanied by highly personal soundtracks, thanks to the sudden ability to carry around vast quantities of music with us all the time.
Luhrmann’s always been very good at, and totally unashamed about, signaling big emotional moments with totally over-the-top pop music. The dance sequence in 1992’s Strictly Ballroom set to “Time After Time” and set against a giant Coca-Cola billboard would be unacceptably crassly commercial if it wasn’t so joyfully effective:
By 1996, Romeo + Juliet‘s progressed to actually having a source for the music on-screen, if off to the side, most notably in the form of Quindon Tarver’s choirboy, suggesting that we and the characters are hearing the same thing:
And in Moulin Rouge!, the characters are expressing themselves directly in popular songs, some of which are in the context of actual performances, but most of which aren’t. The “Elephant Love Medly” has always struck me as particularly attuned to the way iPods would end up letting us score our own lives, skipping the switching-out-a-tape-or-CD bit of listening to songs by different artists, essentially eliminating the labor of picking a song order and synching up selections in a mix tape, making it astonishingly easy to flip between compatible bits of songs:
If you look at the movie musicals that came out in the ten years before Moulin Rouge!, the genre was dominated by children’s movies, Broadway adaptations, and movies by Australians (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert obviously did some of the same work as Moulin Rouge!, but reached a much more limited audience). Moulin Rouge! took the act of bopping along to a song that hit you incredibly hard in the moment and made it the stuff of high drama, affirmed that we weren’t cheesy for feeling like champions when “Heroes” came into the rotation just at the right moment, that “Roxanne” really could express the full depths of love-struck agony. And the movie did that just in time for the technology that would let us carry around all the music we liked best, filtering out the annoying extras of radio, and let us listen to it all the time with relatively little fear of burning out batteries.
I remember how badly I wanted an iPod, and how frustrated I was that I couldn’t afford to buy even a used one in college. YouTube may be equally responsible for the fact that I almost never listen to albums all the way through. But the iPod is what’s let me live my life as a musical. Moulin Rouge! may be a silly, overwrought movie. But ten years in, it looks a lot less silly, and a lot more like a harbinger of things to come, whether Romance & Cigarettes:
or the better moments in Glee: