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Judging from the curious cover tunes featured on this stillborn soundtrack, film director and album producer Baz Luhrmann was aiming for a contemporized version of Bob Fosse's 1972 movie classic, Cabaret. The concept is certainly interesting: Take a gaggle of pop culture icons such as Christina Aguilera, David Bowie, Beck, and Nicole Kidman and have them perform vaudevillian interpretations of modern pop staples including the Police's "Roxanne" and Madonna's "Material Girl." But while Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge grasps for the same lip-puckering decadence as Cabaret, the album lacks that essential undercurrent of pathos and tragedy. The result is a hodgepodge of poorly performed dance, Latin, and electronica numbers, offset by some stagy, overwrought show tunes.

One suspects Luhrmann's intention was to draw parallels between depraved prewar Europe and debauched contemporary America. Instead the soundtrack makes an unwitting statement about the compromises creative people must make nowadays. One can almost imagine Luhrmann pitching his idea of a modern Cabaret to a roomful of deep-pocketed movie moguls. The execs probably agreed to indulge Luhrmann provided that his soundtrack include some lightweight, hit-worthy dance tracks by Aguilera, Li'l Kim, and Valeria.

And like clockwork MTV is already pumping the music video to "Lady Marmalade," which features Aguilera, Kim, Mya, and Pink. But instead of placing a ribald twist on LaBelle's R&B classic about a New Orleans whore, Aguilera and friends are all hip-hop swagger and no irony. They make prostitution sound like rollicking fun. Was that Luhrmann's intention?

Aguilera and her "girlfriends" can be forgiven their cluelessness -- to my knowledge Li'l Kim never claimed to be an "artiste." What's really surprising are the lackluster performances by Bowie, Bono, Beck, and Fatboy Slim. On his version of the Bobby Darin classic "Nature Boy," Bowie mistakes breathless atmosphere for soulfulness, and Fatboy Slim's "Because You Can Can-Can" is pointless bombast. Beck's interpretation of Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" doesn't approach the delectable weirdness of the original, though weirdness is what this soundtrack desperately needs.

The exception to the mediocre rule here is Nicole Kidman's giddy medley of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and Madonna's "Material Girl." Though she doesn't possess the soulful tone of Aguilera, Kidman compensates with a girlish enthusiasm that is infectious.

It's possible that these tepid songs will seem more substantial within the context of the film -- after all, MTV has repeatedly demonstrated that even mundane songs explode when synced to the proper footage. But based on its own merits, Moulin Rouge is an arty snore. What should have been an incisively relevant concept album is an irrelevant conceit. Tsk...

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Bruce Britt

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