moulin rouge!

Ranking the Moulin Rouge! Songs, 20 Years Later

Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (1601010a) Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

When Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! hit theaters 20 years ago (May 16, 2001 to be exact), the visionary director’s kitchen-sink spectacle wowed audiences with its lavish costumes and set pieces, its chart-topping soundtrack single (“Lady Marmalade”), and its general air of star-studded, must-see Hollywood glitz and glamour. Though critical reaction was initially mixed (our own critic didn’t hold back, saying, “It’s like being trapped inside a fever dream of Oscar-night production numbers”), the movie went on to gross more than $150 million at the box office and later found new legs on the Great White Way as a beloved Tony-nominated musical.

Despite its box-office success and sustained fandom, Moulin Rouge! originally looked like it had fiasco written all over it. Luhrmann, riding high off the success of Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, was looking to close out his Red Curtain Trilogy with a flourish — yet neither of its leads had ever starred in a full-scale musical. Kidman’s many injuries dogged the production and even left her with a reputation of being uninsurable. By their nature, high-concept musicals often prove risky endeavors; At Long Last Love was savaged by the critics, and One From the Heart was such a financial disaster (making back less than a million of its $26 million budget) that Francis Ford Coppola would eventually have to declare bankruptcy.  And Moulin Rouge! wasn’t exactly an easy sell with its scattershot influences, from highbrow (Orpheus and Eurydice) to lowbrow (Wile-E Coyote), amounting ultimately to less of a jukebox musical and more of a warehouse-of-different-jukeboxes musical.

I’m not especially fond of jukebox musicals or tragically maudlin love stories, but I ended up seeing Moulin Rouge! in theaters six times during its original run. I’d like to say that it was my film-school curiosity, but truthfully, the endorphin rush I experienced was second to none. (Just seeing Ewan McGregor scratch his head still fires off all my serotonin receptors.) When I look back on it 20 years later, Moulin Rouge!’s curtain call seems like the last of its kind, the final gasp of Hollywood making box-office bank with earnest, campy Technicolor spectacle. Stacking it up against the more cynical industry superhero adaptations that have all but consumed our bandwidth and attention of late, Moulin Rouge!’s monumental success feels all the more miraculous.

To celebrate the film’s anniversary, Vulture is looking back at ten of the songs that defined Moulin Rouge. It’s a truly Sisyphean task to assign any kind of order to this chaotic masterpiece, but at the very least, we’ll help you distinguish the spectacular from the “Spectacular Spectacular.” So grab your top hat, tighten your corset, and let’s hit the dance floor.

10. “Nature Boy”

As the film fades in, a sad John Leguizamo (dressed as a Pierrot clown) is perched in front of a windmill. Nine times out of ten, seeing a sad clown (he’s actually dressed as a magical sitar, but that’s neither here nor there) loafing in front of a windmill would be considered a bad sign, but Leguizamo’s Toulouse-Lautrec (yes, that Toulouse-Lautrec … in clown makeup … in front of a windmill) launches into “Nature Boy.” Written by eden ahbez, a proto-hippie who was rumored to live under the Hollywood sign, the song serves as the perfect introduction to the film’s protagonist, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who is himself “a very strange enchanted boy.”

The lower ranking has less to do with the song itself and more to do with the fact that it feels a bit like going back to the well. “Nature Boy” has been used to establish characters and themes in media such as The Boy With the Green Hair, Untamed Heart, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and, most recently, the criminally underrated series Lodge 49. That’s not to say Moulin Rouge! made the wrong choice, though; the song establishes Christian as a hero who is “a little shy and sad of eye.” By the time we find McGregor with his three-day-growth beard weeping into his typewriter, we’re ready to wander very far on the journey with him.

9. “The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular)”

There’s something so satisfying about when a movie tells you its entire plot before it actually happens. In Shaun of the Dead, Ed lays it all out over pints at the Winchester; Midsommar foreshadows what’s to come through tapestries; and in Moulin Rouge!, we get “The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular).” Set to Offenbach’s “Can Can,” it soundtracks Christian (McGregor), Satine (Kidman), and Harold Zidler (an utterly transformed Jim Broadbent) as they try to sell their play to a nefarious financier, The Duke (Richard Roxburgh)—and in doing so, outline some plot points coming down the pipeline. It’s Moulin Rouge! at its zaniest, with whiplash-inducing camera zooms and slapstick-y sound effects straight out of Looney Tunes. If you can forgive the manic cutting and fast-motion effects, you’ll find ample opportunity to delight in Kidman’s eager theater-kid vibes while swooning at McGregor’s pining glances. Luhrmann’s style might not be everyone’s cup of absinthe, but this number does its job in preparing an audience for the tragicomedy ahead.

8. “The Show Must Go On”

From Wayne’s World to (duh) Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen have had their share of memorable movie moments, but this one actually feels somewhat … plodding. Here, Satine (Kidman) is about to betray Christian (McGregor) in order to save him, but after so many dynamic numbers one right after another, this slows the movie’s building momentum. To its credit, though, the song also highlights one of Moulin Rouge!’s greatest strengths: It makes its stars sound great. Is Nicole Kidman a great singer? I do not know, but the film does an expert job of making it seem like she is! There’s an inexplicable trend in movie musicals of relying on live vocal recordings, as if we don’t have 100+ years of movie magic at our disposal to make our stars sound amazing, as if it’s a more authentic cinematic experience to watch poor Russell Crowe struggle to hit the high notes on “One Day More.” Moulin Rouge! does its stars and audience the service of giving us their best.

7. “Zidler’s Rap Medley”

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, what I’m about to write is bound to read like word salad. “Zidler’s Rap” begins with McGregor, Leguizamo, and a group of Bohemians downing shots of absinthe and hallucinating Kylie Minogue as the Green Fairy. The Australian pop star then sings “The Sound of Music” while McGregor and the Bohemians tackle T-Rex’s “The Children of the Revolution.” The gang is then transported to the Moulin Rouge, at which we finally hear the opening bars of “Lady Marmalade.” But beyond a few “Voulez vous couchers” and a couple “gitchee gitchee ya yas,” that’s … all we hear of the song the entire film. It’s a pretty ballsy move for what was already a massive hit song, but the entire number has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, just-go-with-it vibe. (Old men in tuxedos singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Sure! Jim Broadbent doing backflips in a ringmaster costume? Okay. That was Kylie, right? Where’d she go?) It’s an audacious introduction to the world we’re about to inhabit, with Broadbent, half pimp, half carnival barker, luring us the whole way.

6. “Like a Virgin”

2001 was a banner year for Broadbent, who would win an Oscar for his performance in Iris and was already starring in the box office juggernaut Bridget Jones’s Diary, so it seems almost inconceivable that the same person playing Bridget’s sad sack dad is also the randy owner of the titular Moulin Rouge. In a scene that manages to be both delightful and positively icky, supporting characters Harold Zidler (Broadbent) and The Duke (Roxburgh) take center stage with a number that two middle-aged men rocking grotesque facial hair have absolutely no business performing. Gone is Madonna’s flirty, breathy vocals, replaced here with Broadbent’s groaning whispers—and just as the moment verges on overwhelmingly unpleasant, Zidler (with another vocal assist from Weigh) launches into an operatic take on the ’80s hit that casts him as a shy coquette and the Duke as the big bad wolf.

5. “Come What May”

As the lone original composition written for the film, “Come What May” faces an uphill battle in standing out amid such a strong catalogue of popular songs. While it’s the sort of perfectly serviceable number that fits well into the canon of Oscar-nominated pop standards, on its own, “Come What May” doesn’t stack up against the competition — but as a standout scene in the film, it comes alive. “I’ll write a song, and I’ll put it in the show,” Christian says to Satine as he kisses her forehead. “And no matter how bad things get, whenever you hear it or sing it or whistle it or hum it, it will mean that we love one another.” What follows is one of the greatest loved-up montages of all time, with McGregor and Kidman looking impossibly beautiful with their stolen glances, shy smiles, silk robes, and frantic typewriting.

The song’s impact isn’t fully realized, though, until its conclusion, when Satine — on the verge of dying — sings out to convince Christian of her love for him. Christian returns her call with a full-throated response, a moment that demanded something original. When “Come What May” is called upon as a reprise, it finally rises to the occasion.

4. “Sparkling Diamonds”

During the middle of this song, Satine undergoes a costume change during which she asks Zidler, “What’s his type? Wilting flower? Bright and bubbly? Or smoldering temptress?” Kidman manages to pull off all three, not just in the movie, but in the course of this “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl” mash-up. Moulin Rouge was the actress’s first film post-divorce from Tom Cruise, and she had a lot to prove: While her roles in Batman Forever and To Die For showed that she was very much a star in her own right, her high-profile marriage to Cruise once again took center stage with their long-anticipated turns in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut — the last film she’d appear in before the release of Moulin Rouge two years later.

When she makes her entrance, all eyes are on her. As she literally high-kicks away ogling worshipers, it feels like the musical equivalent of her now-iconic divorce photo. Here, her singing is smoky and playful, and as she’s thrown into the air by a Bubsy Berkeley–esque circle of top-hatted me, her Cheshire Cat grin shows us that she’s having as much fun as we are. The number is pure joy — until she collapses from exhaustion, foreshadowing her tragic death to come. When she finally shows us “wilting flower,” we’ve already fallen in love with her bright and bubbly smoldering temptress.

3. “Elephant Love Medley”

It was hard to imagine that Ewan McGregor — a performer whose early career included roles like the scheming nihilist Rent Boy in Trainspotting —would one day sing “Love Will Lift Us Up Where We Belong” with his arms outstretched atop a giant elephant. Yet the trail of breadcrumbs was always there, as the British actor moved through sensitive roles in films like Little Voice and Brassed Off while showing off his musical potential in fare like Velvet Goldmine and A Life Less Ordinary. Yet all of that was overshadowed by his most high-profile role as Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels, a role he’s set to return to in an upcoming Disney+ series.

Obi-Wan may wield “the force,” but the Star Wars universe rarely utilizes McGregor’s greatest weapon: his charm. Even his most morally compromised characters have it in spades, and if you liked it when he was cynical and acid-tongued, you’ll adore it when he’s lovestruck and hopelessly sincere. Kidman’s character has one job: never to fall in love. But McGregor launches a full-scale attack with an arsenal of cheesy love ballads (everything from Phil Collins’s “One More Night” to Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”). When Satine whispers, “You’re gonna be bad for business, I can tell,” she has decisively lost the battle, but the hungry kiss that follows tells us that this is a sweet surrender.

2. “El Tango de Roxanne”

For the most intense scene of the film, Luhrmann didn’t hold back on tying together wildly different styles and influences. In setting up Satine’s would-be seduction of the Duke, the Police’s “Roxanne” undergoes a complete makeover, with Luhrmann reimagining it as a tango-inspired ballet. The tango conveys Kidman’s inner turmoil as McGregor, in a fit of jealousy, makes his way to her window, forcing her to accept that she cannot go through with the seduction.

Everything has been building to this moment, and everything in Luhrmann’s bag of tricks — borrowing, reimagining, frantic cutting — is on full display. Up until this point, these tricks have been used to create movie magic, but here the director wields them for dramatic tension. As the Duke rips a diamond necklace from Satine’s neck, everyone hits their high notes, and we feel Kidman’s terror. This is what separates Luhrmann from other filmmakers who employ highly stylized filmmaking: Where they often use it for the sake of, well, simply being stylized, Luhrmann uses it to build emotion. He wows you with spectacle, stupefies you with pomp and circumstance, and just when Moulin Rouge feels like it might jump the shark, he pulls it all together and devastates you with a single song.

1. “Your Song”

When McGregor shout-sings, “My gift is my song!” every garret in Montmartre lights up and Kidman’s jaw hits the floor. The camera holds on the actor as he quietly finds his words, gaining confidence until he breaks out that million-watt smile on “How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world.” No frenetic cutting, no mash-ups: just a young man in love, expressing it through Elton John & Bernie Taupin’s classic. It’s the line-in-the-sand moment that will prove whether you’re onboard with this madcap movie or not, as the thing moves past chaotic spectacle and becomes a total celebration of freedom, beauty, truth, and love. And if you can’t find joy in watching Ewan McGregor dancing with an umbrella in a bespoke sequined suit, well, I don’t hold out much hope for you.

Ranking the Top Ten Moulin Rouge! Songs, 20 Years Later