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Baz Luhrmann on Figure Skating’s Love Affair With Moulin Rouge!

Baz Luhrmann Photo: Getty Images

At this year’s Winter Olympic Games, all figure skaters have been given the opportunity to perform to songs with lyrics for the first time ever, and though this new development has opened the door to an endless range of musical choices, from Beyoncé to, uh, Disturbed, one group of songs has been getting more than its fair share of airtime — the operatic soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! In the last week, skaters from Australia, the Philippines, the U.S., and, of course those sexy Canadians, have danced to songs from the 2001 musical, and Luhrmann, Australia’s king of camp, is definitely here for it. To get some insight into the phenomenon, John Horn of KPCC’s radio show and podcast The Frametalked to Luhrmann about the 2018 Winter Olympics and the glittery, gaudy, and totally complementary relationship between figure skating and Moulin Rouge!

The Moulin Rouge! element of the figure-skating program is extraordinary. I was watching these amazing Canadian skaters last night, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, and I said to my wife, “It sounds like Ewan McGregor singing.” And she paused and she said, “It is Ewan McGregor singing.”
No, no, no, no that was Scott Moir singing. He was skating and singing at the same time.

The Wall Street Journal had a story which said, “There are enough Americans skating to Moulin Rouge! this season to field an entire U.S. team — including alternates,” and there are also skaters from the Philippines to Australia, your home country, who are skating to it.
Kailani Craine, yeah.

Why do you think Moulin Rouge! is such a great match to ice-skating?
I think one, just on the very surface of it Moulin Rouge! in its own language is operatic. Yes, it’s a musical, and yes it’s a postmodern musical, but its emotions are operatic. You go from great romance to ridiculous, over-the-top comedy, but there’s also tragedy and dark themes. A track like “Roxanne,” the tango of that gives ice-skaters high drama, great romance, and some fun, thrill, and excitement. So the work itself embodies that musically, and it lends itself to be expressed as a ballet as well, and in song. They all are very, very natural bedfellows, so to speak.

These are the first Winter Games where all figure skaters can perform to music with lyrics, not just instrumentals, and I think what these songs say lyrically is also in keeping with what they’re trying to achieve on the ice. 
Totally. It’s interesting, Vincent Zhou — who’s on the USA team — he does “Nature Boy.” Now, I recorded that track with David Bowie singing it, and when he sings that Eden Ahbez song and you see a young boy like Vincent Zhou dancing on the ice, it’s as if it’s what’s going on in his head. If they skated and actually sang the lyrics, the lyrics would not be out of place if it was — it sounds funny — but Moulin Rouge! on ice, all singing, all skating.

This could be your next show, Baz — the Moulin Rouge! Ice Capades spectacular. The other thing that I would say is true is that Moulin Rouge! is a love story, and for people who haven’t seen it, let’s just say it doesn’t end well. I think that’s also true for a lot of Olympic skaters. There’s only going to be three people who medal, and there’s gonna be a lot of people who are dancing on ice to Moulin Rouge! who are not going to win a medal. So I guess in some ways, the tragic love story part of it is true for a lot of the athletes. 
Absolutely. Tragic romance. You know, when I see those couples and you hear that music, the pressure they’re under, they’re giving their life. It’s a life-and-death performance, you can see it in them. I think what’s so compelling about this particular sport is that it is as much an artful expression as it is a sport. To do three quads in a row is a great thing. It’s like a high-wire act.

I don’t know if you have your passport ready or a good winter coat, but can you get to South Korea with a stack of DVDs and soundtrack albums and set up camp outside the ice arena? I suspect you could sell a lot of movies and soundtracks. 
Yeah, I’ll be the guy outside going, “Moulin Rouge! the soundtrack! Get ’em! Get ’em! Get them while you can!” I would love nothing more than to have been at those Olympics for many reasons, but unfortunately I don’t get to do that. I have to be in a small, dark room, trying to make something that is relevant for this time we’re in, so I’m trying to do my best on that.

Well, whatever you’re working on, maybe we’ll hear it at the next summer Games.
Yeah, exactly. Oh my god, I’ve gotta get my new work ready so people are performing to it at the summer Games. Better get back to it!

Baz Luhrmann on Figure Skating’s Love of Moulin Rouge!