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Never before had a musical so delighted in the flamboyant, the kitsch, the tragic and the melodramatic as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, wrapped in showgirl feathers and stinking of absinthe: a wonderful antithesis to the theatre elite. Jesus Christ Superstar may have tried, Little Shop of Horrors might have come close, but seldom had a production been so deserving of iconic status, so worthy of a bedazzled Crown of Camp – and its audience knew it. Soon enough, it gained cult-like status; moviegoers were in awe of the bastardised pop songs, the flagrant disregard for minimalism, and its diamond-encrusted disdain for the snobbery of ‘high art’ or gritty drama. By the end of 2001, it was divisively named ‘Best Film of the Year’. As one Guardian reviewer put it: ’it [was] as if a jeroboam of champagne [had] been shaken up far too much and then uncorked in our faces.’ Take that as you will.

“Seldom had a production been so deserving of iconic status, so worthy of a bedazzled Crown of Camp.”

In the last few weeks before the first lockdown, back when a ‘national emergency’ still sounded ridiculous and we all, so foolishly, hoped that it’d all be over by Christmas (alas, pandemics don’t tend to happen like that), I crashed on the sofa and watched as one of my best friends placed that fateful red DVD into the player, as if for the first time. I was still reeling from the shock of an offer from Cambridge, frenziedly worrying about how I was going to get the grades, and, to be honest, slightly sick from the pressure of it all. The sound of sirens, formerly a rare occurrence in rural East Sussex, were beginning to pass by my window with an alarming frequency. I started to avoid the news. A remnant from my internet-consumed adolescence, the warnings of horror movies and video games were beginning to ricochet in my head; I was constantly reminded of dystopian futures, zombie apocalypses, and the first person shooters that I was so ridiculously bad at…

Yet when those titles rolled, everything faded to black.

With a crash and a flourish, the last showy remnants of 19th Century Paris exploded on screen, David Bowie’s elegiac tones seeping into the frame with the melancholy of a Byronic love poem; the camera, cascading downwards, spiralled into the underworld of Montmartre. Stage lights dazzled. Can-can dancers squealed. Jim Broadbent ran around a dining table wrapped in a bedsheet, singing a disturbingly salacious rendition of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’. And in that two-hour long epic of two ill-fated lovers – Nicole Kidman’s Satine tragic, Ewan McGregor’s Christian hopelessly Keatsian – the chaos outside fell away, and I sang along to every word. It was the cure for the itch.

Moulin Rouge is based on a real French cabaret club which opened in Paris in 1889. Unsplash

I spent those next few weeks alternating between the movie soundtrack and its 2019 Broadway counterpart (performed with a fabulously-cast Aaron Tveit), watching from my bedroom as the world fell apart around me. Though the pandemic raged on outside my window, every time that I pressed play I lost myself in that fantastical world of decadent dance halls and star-crossed lovers; the dark shadow of ‘unprecedented times’ dissolved into a cloud of sequins and 90s pop.

“The dark shadow of ‘unprecedented times’ dissolved into a cloud of sequins and 90s pop.”

I’ve always been a sucker for musicals. As a kid, my mother would rush me to her amateur theatre rehearsals every Thursday, setting me down in the back of an empty Methodist church as a motley crew of pensioners, teenagers and office-workers-turned-thespians bustled together, warming up their voices and fanning themselves with music sheets. I’d watch from beside the lectern, half-listening, half-engrossed in a copy of the latest Percy Jackson, as my mum set the pace, choreographing each idle pair of feet to Oklahoma, Godspell, Copacabana, Crazy for You… all with a rolling, furious fervour. In those moments, the real world became irrelevant – gone were the worries of work and school, rent and unpaid mortgages, all exchanged for love of the music. The drama. The unreality.


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Good musicals make you sing. Great ones make you feel. Moulin Rouge is undoubtedly a great one. I don’t know where I’d be without its kitschy setlist or unabashed flamboyancy; the way it’s so shameless, so cheesy, so… human. So what if it’s a little camp? A little over the top? In a time where everything is being made darker and grittier, remade and rebooted with an edge that would make My Chemical Romance jealous, why should we have to focus on the worst in life? Why must everything be ‘realistic’? Why can’t we just enjoy things?

I love this musical because it wants you to have fun. It refuses to take itself seriously, and cares nothing for the blistering opinion of a pretentious film critic. It also has a scathingly accurate commentary of class relations if you’re interested in that sort of analysis, but to be honest, you’ll probably be too caught up in the sequins to care. Listening to those songs, relishing their Luhrmann-esque spectacle, is more than just an escape from reality. Moulin Rouge is a show of defiance – come what may.