Montmartre, Paris, France

Roxanne by The Police

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Walk the streets for money
You don't care if it's wrong
Or if it's right Read full Lyrics
In October 1977, three men the world had barely heard of went on tour across Europe. While scheduled to perform at the Nashville Club in Paris, they witnessed a string of prostitutes lingering around their seedy hotel. These ladies of the night inspired one of the band's biggest hits. The band was the Police and the song was "Roxanne."

The Moulin Rouge in Montmartre<br>Photo: Hermann, PixabayThe Moulin Rouge in Montmartre
Photo: Hermann, Pixabay
Roxanne (a name taken from Cyrano De Bergerac) is the title character who sells her body to the highest bidder. The narrator of the song has fallen hopelessly in love with her. You can hear the pain and desperation in Sting's voice as he sings of unrequited affection and admiration. "You don't have to turn on the red light," refers to the old Red Light Districts, in which brothel owners would replace the white or yellow bulb outside their front porch with a red one. This signaled to any potential johns which doors belonged to houses of ill repute. Sting pleads for Roxanne to keep her light turned off and the "other boys" away.

Montmartre is a hill in northern Paris, and located on its summit is a world famous nightclub district. In spite of being founded by Jesuits, who built the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur, the Mount of Mars grew in popularity in the mid-19th century, as artists from all walks flocked to the district. Musicians, actors, painters, writers, and poets – known colloquially as Bohemians – lived and worked in the communes throughout Montmartre. Some of them became legends; you'll recognize some names, such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Langston Hughes, and more recently Django Reinhardt. But perhaps the most well-known landmark in this section of the city is the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge, a cabaret founded in 1889, features a giant red windmill at the front gate that towers high over the customers' heads ("Moulin Rouge" literally translates to red windmill). The club became famous as the birthplace of the can-can dance, which the courtesans began using to seduce their patrons. The business aim for the club was to allow the Parisian rich and powerful to "slum it" without leaving such a prominent and fashionable section of the city. The Moulin Rouge's garden was decorated lavishly, including an enormous elephant. The rich, middle class, and impoverished alike gathered to drool over the can-can courtesans.

In 2001, producer Baz Luhrmann immortalized the turn-of-the-century Moulin Rouge in his musical film of the same name. Loosely inspired by the Greek legend of Orpheus, the film tells the story of a penniless English writer who relocates to Montmartre in an effort to fuel his art with the passion of the Bohemian Revolution. While frequenting the red windmill, he falls in love with one of the prostitutes and the rest of the tragic tale plays out mostly as you'd expect. The highlight of the film is the soundtrack, which was built from contemporary popular music.

The 2001 film, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregorThe 2001 film, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor
The process to acquire the copyrights for all the music he wanted to use took Luhrmann over two years to complete (only a handful of original material was written). The soundtrack includes songs from Queen, Madonna, Nirvana, David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Bono, Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton, and The Police. With such closely linked themes, during an emotional moment in the second act, one of the side characters launches into El Tango De Roxanne – a tango version of the Police's hit. More than appropriate, the song is a perfect fit for a story about the young and innocent Christian who falls for the sultry Satine, a woman that has sex with anyone who'll pay for her.

By 1965, the flame of the artists' revolution had been extinguished. The song "La Boheme" states, "I no longer recognize, neither the walls nor the streets... Montmartre seems sad." Today, the district is hardly the energetic center of Bohemia that it once was. There's a small vineyard which continues the tradition of wine-making. The previous home of painter Maurice Utrillo has been converted to a museum. Officially designated as a historic district, the city has all but halted development on the hill to preserve and maintain its character.

It's unclear which version of Montmartre Sting experienced when he wrote "Roxanne," however, one cannot dismiss how inspirational this Parisian district has been for artists across the centuries. As far as the red lights though... they're all off, so perhaps Roxanne and her nameless lover finally found peace in each other's arms. Only Sting knows for certain.

Justin Novelli
February 16, 2016
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