“Love is a many splendored thing, love lifts us up where we belong – all you need is love.”
So begins the ‘Elephant Love Medley’, Moulin Rouge’s sweepingly romantic, pop-culture-spanning eulogy to love – in all its ‘many splendored’ glory. The song, and its message, is the crux of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 cult classic, a cinematic whirlwind that transports the viewer back to the Bohemian epicentre of Montmartre in fin-de-siècle Paris – where poets, painters and artists gathered in the name of truth, beauty, freedom and love.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Londoners may have noticed a similar exodus at work. Over the past few months, each night at roughly 6pm, eastward bound London tube lines have been flooded with revellers decked out in corsets and garters, cravats and waistcoats, top hats and tails.
This army of Bohemian party-goers were heading to Secret Cinema: Moulin Rouge, gathering at an outwardly-unassuming London warehouse, breathtakingly transformed into the visual splendour of Luhrmann’s movie.I first discovered Moulin Rouge in my early teens and fell in love with the film. The movie has an ingenious soundtrack, which reworks tracks by David Bowie, Queen and Elton John; a heart achingly romantic storyline; Ewan McGregor at his most swoon-worthy and Nicole Kidman at her most glamorous. The setting is visually resplendent – Moulin Rouge envelops the viewer in its world. The movie is inherently theatrical – an obvious choice for the Secret Cinema treatment.
Headed by Fabien Riggall, a cinema buff who founded the company 10 years ago (an anniversary celebration is apparently in the works), Secret Cinema is a wildly successful company that makes millions by recreating beloved films – and then inviting cinemagoers to explore these worlds. The highlight of Secret Cinema is this awe-inspiring, free exploration of the world of the film. The events blur the edges between where movie ends and reality begins, an illusion enhanced by the mandatory costumes.
Spotting who is a hired actor and who is a guest is far from easy. You can interact with and meet your favourite characters – see your favourite moments play out before your eyes – but no matter what thrills you encounter, it must all remain a ‘secret’. Yes, even in the Instagram age Secret Cinema has a mandatory no phones policy. It adds up to a truly immersive experience.Past Secret Cinema hits have included 2014’s Back to the Future – which although initially plagued by logistical issues, soon impressed with its 1950s Hill Valley set. 2015’s Star Wars invited guests to join the Force, whisking through a recreation of the key scenes of A New Hope before sitting them down for crowd-pleaser The Empire Strikes Back. From February – June 2017 Londoners headed to Montmartre, to spend the night as a 19th century Parisian.
But which 19th century Parisian? Well, it depended on your ticket. The lowest band – which still went for a hefty £49.00 – assigned you a creature of the underground. £59.00 and you were a child of the revolution, a true Bohemian (who also gets the chance to sit down). Finally, the great and the good forked out £130.00 for the chance to be an aristocrat for the night and got the VIP treatment. My companion and I were deemed creatures of the underground: a journalist and an opera singer.
In the lead up to the event, I am delighted to discover that my character, Jane Heap, was a real life American literary modernist. Meanwhile my companion is the singer May Belfort, painted by Toulouse Lautrec no less. Upon entering, we are enigmatically advised to “earn francs” and then let loose into the thrilling netherworld, with little guidance.
Instantly, it feels as though we have been transported through the silver screen. The level of detail is breathtaking, a mecca for the Moulin Rouge fan. We see Parisian streets, bars, bed-sits and theatres. There are corners for secret rendezvous, stages for performances, ladders for climbing and balconies and boudoirs to peak into. We traverse the French alleyways, glimpsing the star of the show Santine (Nicole Kidman’s character in the film) and spotting the band of poets Ewan McGregor’s character Christian falls in with.Dodging the evil Duke, we seize the chance to sing for Moulin Rouge owner Harold Zidler, played by Jim Broadbent in the film and here by a dead ringer for the British film stalwart. We try not to let our relative soberness get in the way, but – perhaps fortunately – (Zidler ominously confirms that he “likes the look of us”), we are distracted by the dulcet tones of Christian, singing Moulin Rouge’s reimagining of ‘the Sound of Music’.
Abandoning our quest for singing stardom, we gather to watch this scene play out. These seemingly spontaneous performances occur in several other instances, and every time it is electrifying. Watching the film play out in front of your eyes is thrilling – plus you aren’t going to attend Secret Cinema: Moulin Rouge unless you’re a big fan of the movie – and we are banded together by our unapologetic delight in the proceedings.
The performers sing, act and interact with the audience, with no qualms about spontaneity. The Ewan and Nicole stand-ins are charming – but it is the band of poets and revolutionaries who stand out. They capture their on-screen counterparts sense of mischievousness: they organize conga-lines, dance-offs, impulsive sing-alongs to David Bowie classics.Of course the true star of the show is the movie screening. The film is broadcast in Secret Cinema’s recreated Moulin Rouge-esque theatre, with the performers acting out key scenes in front of their cinematic equivalents. Theatrical and full of song and dance numbers, Moulin Rouge suits the Secret Cinema treatment to the tee. As the credits roll, the audience are on their feet, dancing with the stars, elated – even if some revellers have clearly overdone the drinks. My friend and I decide that the top-hatted men holding champagne bottles, slumped in the corner, only add to the authentic experience.
Secret Cinema adds up to an expensive night, without a doubt, but the standard of performance is comparable to West End theatre – and the ticket prices are roughly equivalent. At Moulin Rouge, there were also plenty of opportunities to donate to Help Refugees, so you could enjoy yourself in aid of a good cause.
In this age where every day seems to bring another swell of bad news, there’s a lot to be said for escaping from the 21st century for the night. At their best, movies provide escapism, a glimpse into other lives, another world. Secret Cinema succeeds because it takes that feeling to another level. Waking up the next morning, the night felt like a dream: an enchanting, uplifting dream come true.
Photos © Secret Cinema. Visit the official website for more information on future shows.