Baz Luhrmann is nowhere near South Korea at the moment, but you could be forgiven for thinking that he had a hand in the winter Olympics. A good part of it is playing out as a tribute to his 2001 movie, “Moulin Rouge.” Skaters from four different countries have revived at least a half-dozen songs from the film’s soundtrack for their routines — most notably, the Canadians who have now become the most rewarded ice dance team in history, with an assist from soundtrack cuts like the Ewan McGregor-sung “Come What May.” This is the first year that the Olympics have allowed songs with lyrics to be part of the skating competition, and it’s as if 17 years’ worth of bottled-up “Moulin Rouge” mania is being unleashed all at once.
The director spoke with Variety about his fandom for the Olympians’ “Moulin” fixation, along with his appreciation for what’s being done with the upcoming Broadway adaptation of the film, which he’s observing from only slightly less of a distance.
Variety: With a Broadway stage musical version of “Moulin Rouge” opening this year, some might think the production had an endorsement or sponsorship deal with the Olympics. Was an arrangement made on the sly?
Baz Luhrmann: I can tell you that when I woke up and the “Moulin Rouge” album was No. 13 on the iTunes chart — and I don’t know if it had even been on the charts in 10 years — I was as surprised as everybody else. But hey, I’m happy to consider “Moulin Rouge on Ice: The Skating Spectacular!” I know how I’d cast it.
The soundtrack album was a strong seller at the time, but it wasn’t “Thriller” big. Hearing it used in the Olympics might lead you to believe that it was more ubiquitous than it was.
I’ve got quite a few “Moulin Rouge” platinum records — I mean, CDs — on my wall. But I certainly don’t have anything near what I’m sure Quincy [Jones] and Michael had on their walls. “Moulin” was very much driven in the early parts by the single that we did with Christina [Aguilera] and Pink (“Lady Marmalade”), when they were new on the scene. And the soundtrack has had a life.
But the film itself… There’s a greater love, appreciation and openness now to the musical form—thank God. I went through such a war to convince people that maybe there was a way of mashing the musical door open again back then… As with all the work I did, there was a hugely divided critical response. The two critics for Time [Magazine], I think one called it the second best film of the year, and one called it the worst. (Indeed, Richard Corliss did have it as his second-best for 2001, while his comrade Richard Schickel had it as the year’s 11th worst film.) But the audiences find it, and they’re very passionate and connected to it.
Do you feel like what the Canadian skaters are doing goes beyond using the music as soundtrack to actually inhabiting the roles of Christian and Satine from the movie?
I think so. With Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, the Canadian skaters, it feels like he is singing Ewan McGregor’s lines to his partner. It feels like they’re having a relationship. And it’s kind of gone into another place by [the Olympics allowing songs with] lyrics. Because whether you consciously receive it or not, it’s a narration inside your head. And like a ballet of “Romeo and Juliet”; you understand the story. I look at the routine that the two Canadian skaters did, and it’s ballet on ice. … It’s an extraordinary thing to watch. It uplifts the soul. It exalts the spirit. You’re sort of aware of how brilliantly clever the choreography is, but all of that just melds into one gesture, until you’re just completely inside the emotion between those two characters. It’s kind of another level.
You’re surprised by the level to which this is happening, but have you been getting a feeling over the years that the music is getting this kind of use, outside of the Olympics?
Now we’ve moved into an era where there are many successful [film] musicals. And even currently, with “”Greatest Showman,” it’s just grown and grown. The thing about musicals is that once they start to work, they never go away. I mean, “Sound of Music” is being performed somewhere in the world every day. “Moulin Rouge” has had a different kind of life. Remember when Obama was running? He used “Yes We Can Can Can” (“Because We Can,” by Fatboy Slim) in his original campaign [in 2008]. So the music has been used and been ongoing. And, musicals, operas, by their very nature, they’re heightened emotion. They’re not meant to be realist. That’s why you have very simple plots, but you can have extremely exalted emotions. And that really suits the narrative you need to play out on ice.
Skating has a history of using opera or ballet scores, like “Swan Lake” and “Carmen.” It has to be as emotional as possible in three minutes. There’s not a lot of time to waste in getting to that heightened state you are talking about.
Exactly. I remember when I was a kid — Nadia Comaneci, do you remember her, the Romanian gymnast? She was doing her gymnastics to the theme [from “The Young and the Restless”], and it became such a huge radio hit that they renamed it “Nadia’s Theme.” And that was the first time I can remember when sport popularized a piece of music that was relatively dormant.
Like you said, “Lady Marmalade” was the hit, but it’s other songs that the athletes have gravitated toward — the deep tracks. Are you surprised by which songs the athletes use?
The Canadian routine is just exquisite. What they do is compress the whole relationship of the movie into one three-minute bite, and it’s very well cut, and each movement moves from one thing to another. You have an opening statement of “The Show Must Go On,” and then I think it goes into “El Tango de Roxanne,” which is kind of how volatile the relationship is. And then it ends with “Come what may, we will be together forever.” So that sums up the somewhat tragic, operatic structure of the movie.
And when [American bronze medalist] Vincent Zhou uses “Nature Boy”… I worked with David Bowie on doing that vocal, and even though his interpretation isn’t that present in the movie, it’s one of the more extraordinary vocal performances that I’ve ever been involved in — or seen, really. I always thought it was a really remarkable recording, and was a bit sad that it didn’t get as much exposure. Eden Ahbez wrote that [in the 1940s, originally recorded by Nat King Cole] about a kind of singular and almost messianic boy, and I think [Zhou] sort of embodies that. So I was surprised and really liked how he used the music in that.
If “Nature Boy” can become one of the hits of 2018, then life can surprise all of us in pleasant ways.
You know what, man, I love your outlook, because I believe that, too. That’s where the human condition can atone for the stupidity of our situation, when we can bring out a little bit of beauty. And “Nature Boy” is just such a remarkable piece, and thank God the music and the art and the sport and those things cut through a lot of the ugly noise, which ultimately will pass.
This should lead to greater interest in the film on Netflix, as well as re-popularizing the soundtrack. Do you foresee a leap in revival screenings?
“Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet,” and “Gatsby” even, there are screenings all the time, (especially) in Los Angeles. Because the films are made to be seen more than once. And in fact in London, there was a thing called Secret Cinema, where you had to come dressed as characters, and it was a thousand people a night. Can you imagine? It ran for several months. They built all the sets to “Moulin Rouge,” and they performed in front of the movie, a bit like “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” where it was meant to be participatory. It just keeps having its own interpretations. That’s what it’s there to do.
And the latest interpretation is the upcoming stage version of “Moulin.” You’re not involved with it?
I’m not doing the live stage musical, which is opening in Boston and then coming to Broadway. Because I’m kind of at the center of it, but I’ve moved on myself, it’s a bit like a child who’s gone off to college. You know, I hear from it occasionally.
It’s being directed by Alex Timbers, who did “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love,” which was lesser-seen but just great.
[That was] fantastic. Loved it. I can tell you, I’m like a distant uncle. I drop in occasionally and give them great encouragement. My whole thing about it is that when you make these works — when I made “La Boheme” the opera on Broadway, and when I did “Strictly Ballroom,” which is ultimately about rebelling against artistic oppression — I was a bit of a young rebel. I’m not that person anymore. So I feel much better about saying, “Alex, you take it and interpret it as you see it.” Alex is kind of a fan, and his team are fans, and they’re young. It’s so much better if they do that, and it’s such a joy to see them go off with it. The original parent getting in the way of the process is probably not that helpful.
Can you say what you’re working on now, or is it a secret?
Uh, it is a secret. It’s a big music piece. There are two of them, actually, two really large movies I’ve been working on for years. I’m deciding which one is the most relevant in this oh-so-messy, ugly world. … There is so much just dissension and division and anger and grubbiness that to see two athletes actually create not only an extraordinary physical achievement but something that is poetic – and above all, something that is human – that’s really touching to me to have contributed to that in any way whatsoever.
It must be gratifying to have something like “Moulin,” which was, as you say, “dormant,” come back to life…
There is music and culture, stories and art that move through time and geography. And to me that’s what defines classicism: It’s actually got relevance in a different place and a different time, way after the fact… You can’t turn to any corner of existence, no matter who you do, who you are, where you are, without seeing that the old tectonic plates of history are smashing together, and it’s bigger than all of us.