From the half dozen ditties Al Jolson sang to a synchronized soundtrack for the first time in history during 1927’s The Jazz Singer to Jay-Z’s “100$ Bill” in this summer’s The Great Gatsby, songs have long been one of the cinema’s best secret weapons for any occasion – light escapism, setting a scene, an unforgettable moment, ironic contrast, satire, short-hand for defining a period piece, translating the thrill of the stage to the big screen, devastation, uplift, rumination, fury, a lasting impression at the very end…they serve so many purposes, are so integral to the legacies of your favorite movies, so densely populated within the 86 years of film history since Jolson’s breakthrough that it’s bullshit the Oscars never invented a category for Best Song Moment, not just for ones written for movies but for any usage thereof. Or just introduced a whole new annual ceremony to celebrate the continued, thriving brilliance of filmmakers merging the language of film with that of songs. And I specify songs because orchestral and instrumental musical composition is quite a different field – the art of scoring a film deserves just as much adulation, but it already gets that, as the judges of assorted academies and associations have been applauding the John Williamses, Bernard Herrmanns, and Ennio Morricones for as long as anyone’s been evaluating cinema itself. But what about Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” for the Vince and Mia’s boogie in Pulp Fiction? Gene Kelly splashing around to the title song for Singin’ in the Rain? The Broadway homage that shows up at least once in every Mel Brooks movie? Or the rare licensing of a Beatles recording? It’s indelible, the effect a song can have in conjunction with a movie scene. There’s a reason music videos were eventually invented and popularized, for example – complementing a song with images telling a story or conveying a mood or just underscoring the sight of people doing stuff enhances the experience immeasurably. There have been songs I didn’t even like that much until I saw them used on a TV show or during a movie montage and then all of a sudden, I got it – that’s why people like that song. I can feel it now! In an effective context, songs and movies flatter each other, and envelop audiences doubly in their individual magic. So, coming at you every Wednesday from now on will be a new feature rocking and rolling to the timeless tradition of song placement in films. Each week I’ll highlight a different moment that had me dancing in my seat, swelling with emotion, and reminding myself that life should always come equipped with a soundtrack.
Let’s start out on the highest of notes, arguably the epitome of all music moments ever captured on film, yet one that I doubt is commonly remembered lo these twelve years hence. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! may have lapped up the accolades back in 2001, with a Best Picture nomination, a generally positive consensus, and a high point in the director’s career, but there seems to be just as many people out there who can’t take its unabashed romanticism seriously, and who find its kitschy songbook and hyperbolic presentation simply annoying. I pity these people, not because they’re wrong but because they’re denying themselves Luhrmann’s admirably earnest vision of a world where “love, beauty, freedom, and love” conquer all. Succumbing to the starry-eyed over-the-top extravaganza that is Moulin Rouge! remains one of my life’s most cherished times spent in a theater, and I knew it would be halfway through the Elephant Love Medley.
For those unfamiliar, it’s the movie’s centerpiece, in which Ewan McGregor declares his love for Nicole Kidman, but when she resists, they proceed to spar musically using lines from a dozen vintage hit love songs from the ’60s to the ’90s until he wins her over and they finally embrace. And not just the usual suspects, either – well, okay, Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is the climax, of course – but a kooky combination of iconic ballads. They touch upon:
- “All You Need is Love” by The Beatles
- “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” by KISS
- “One More Night” by Phil Collins”Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2
- “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
- “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney
- “Heroes” by David Bowie
- “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston (in this case)
- “Your Song” by Elton John
- and lyrical references to Sweet’s “Love is Like Oxygen” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” from the 1955 movie of the same name.
That’s a canny move in itself, not only using snippets of popular song as dialogue, but embedding these inescapable radio singles into a lavish theatrical musical, bridging two worlds that are often considered mutually exclusive by their respective members (I know way too many people, music fans even, who reject outright reject musicals). Even if you think Whitney Houston is too schmaltzy and overplayed, or Phil Collins’ soft rock ’80s phase a blight upon the prog foundations of Genesis, or McCartney’s entire career as a songwriter to be sappy beyond redemption – in other words, if you’re kind of a jerk – then there are alternative selections from Bowie and U2 to sustain some hipster cred, and nobody should deny the epic joy of that Beatles classic or Harold Melvin’s disco soul (interestingly, despite how similarly grandiose this scene in the movie is, it doesn’t even use the song’s exultant chorus). But really, if you’re a pop music omnivore, it’s exciting to hear each song piled on one after another, and re-arranged into orchestral showtunes as a gigantic meta ode to a life of connecting with and singing along to these cultural footnotes. It might even elevate your appreciation for them – I can’t imagine anyone ever using “Silly Love Songs” more appropriately. For a twist, The Beatles are done in a-cappella, KISS becomes big-band swing, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Silly Love Songs” are much more tender than the originals, “Up Where We Belong” gets the Broadway treatment it always called for, and McGregor soars with Bowie’s heart-racing declarations in “Heroes” alongside a transcendental horn section.
That’s another thing: terrific casting. Say what you will about actors trying to sing; I don’t know how formally skilled they are compared to stage thespians, but Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor both sell the fuck out of this movie. They can hold their notes in all the different octaves, their voices are soft and sweet on the ears, and the emotional commitment poured into this scene is overwhelming – McGregor in all his open-hearted sincerity and gushing happiness (he pulls it off better than most actors could, I think – maybe it’s the huge guileless smile?), and Kidman requiring a more complex web of feelings as she veers from bemused skeptic to melancholic disillusionment to hesitantly playing along and then gradually, wholeheartedly giving in to love during “Heroes”. This was her last/most triumphant stance as a movie star before devoting herself to more challenging work in smaller prestige projects, several poorly chosen attempts to polish her fame (The Interpreter, The Stepford Waves, another musical Nine, and Luhrmann’s forgotten follow-up Australia) and the occasional for-fun mainstream trot (Bewitched, Just Go with it), and while there have been exquisite performances since then, in none has she stood as tall as a true movie star and commanded everyone’s attention as purely. This was also in her pre-surgery days when, in my opinion, she was the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, and while that’s not the only valuable thing about her in this movie or others before it, I won’t lie and pretend that it doesn’t contribute to the dazzling escapism of Moulin Rouge. She’s a great actress but in this movie also a stunning sight to behold, and that just etches scenes like these even more permanently into the cosmos.
Baz Luhrmann certainly does his part in managing the cinematography of the scene, too, keeping his editor on a leash so we can drink up the radiant colors and lighting and overall spectacle of every shot. Even as far back as his 1993 debut Strictly Ballroom, he’s had a manic style that sometimes gets the best of him (arguably in other scenes from this movie, but also his recent work on Gatsby), and his sense of humor is often discordantly juvenile (unless you consider everything he does to be a neo-burlesque show, but even so, your mileage may vary on that count), but both potentially bad habits are reined in perfectly for this moment in the film.
When the two lovers finally come face to face to “I Will Always Love You”, they’re framed expressionistically against a heart bursting out with stars and then an array of sparkling floral patterns as both the camera and the actors simultaneously rotate, the operatic embellishment literally swirling around you like a tornado. As you catch your breath afterwards, it leaves you wondering where else movie musicals can go with their love anthems after this. This is the apex, show’s over. It’s all downhill from there. And honestly, I haven’t seen a bigger, better display of romantic gusto since then. It’s for the ages.
Other Memorable Music Moments in the Film: Jim Broadbent leading a club remix of the “Can-Can” interspersed with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a dizzying showstopper, and McGregor gamely belts out “Your Song” in full in a kind of prelude to the Elephant Love Medley. Also a provocative tango set to The Police’s “Roxanne” and two pretty yet ultimately disposable Kidman-only numbers, one a medley of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl”, the other an introspective ballad using Randy Crawford’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away”. Probably the next best thing to our entry here is the big finale, where McGregor proves his loyalty to Kidman once and for all as they sing the film’s love theme, “Come What May” (originally written for Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo & Juliet, but not used). It’s another slow-build, towering paean that restores your faith in sincere declarations of the heart, and despite Kidman’s ill fate thereafter, takes us out of the movie flying high on wings of love. Hey, there’s a good starting point for the eventual sequel/reboot: get some Jeffrey Osborne in there!