Hollywood Flashback: Baz Luhrmann's 'Moulin Rouge!' Revived the Musical in 2001

Courtesy of Photofest
Nicole Kidman in 2001's 'Moulin Rouge!'

The 2001 film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor went on to gross $180 million worldwide ($260 million today), earned an Oscar nomination for best film and became a Broadway musical that opened July 25: "It smashed the door in to allow musicals to be legitimate," says the director.

It was probably for the best that Baz Luhrmann gave Moulin Rouge! an exclamation point. It differentiated his 2001 film from John Huston's Moulin Rouge, the 1952 drama that served as Zsa Zsa Gabor's big break. 

"I think it gets the exclamation point because it's the nature of that world," says Luhrmann. "It's 'The Moulin Rouge!' Nothing is flat; everything is over the top."

The director's $50 million Fox production ($72 million today) starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor was predicted to flop and opened at No. 4 behind Pearl Harbor, Shrek and Rob Schneider's The Animal, but went on to gross $180 million worldwide ($260 million today), got an Oscar nomination for best picture and won a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy.

When the musical set in the legendary Parisian nightclub premiered at Cannes, The Hollywood Reporter was unimpressed. Though the review called Kidman "iridescent," it said the film was "like a Busby Berkeley musical for the MTV age."

However, the premise has aged well and become a Broadway musical that opened July 25. It's directed not by Luhrmann but by Alex Timbers, who also helmed a Broadway musical based on Rocky (no exclamation point).

Besides the financial success, what pleases Luhrmann, 56, most about Rouge! is that "it smashed the door in to allow musicals to be legitimate," he says. "I wanted to find a way of getting the cinematic musical back in the vernacular of cinema."

At the time there hadn't been a movie musical in years, and Luhrmann took some heat for using contemporary music that ranged from Madonna to Nirvana and Hindi movie songs to Rodgers and Hammerstein ("Cute at best and cloying in its smugness," said The Hollywood Reporter). But he's convinced this was the right choice. 

"The idea of using familiar music came from old musicals," says Luhrmann. "Music in old musicals was popular music. It wasn't nostalgic. It was the music of that time."

Luhrmann is now in production on an Elvis Presley biopic musical with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's Austin Butler playing the iconic rocker.

The director says he's still "in process" regarding the film's music, adding, "I can never rid myself of my own way of telling a story."

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.