Baz Luhrmann Turns 60

A hearty and enthusiastic celebration today of Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Mark Anthony Lurhman, b. 1962), a visionary who exploded age old notions of what movie musicals could be, or ought to be. There’s much exciting stuff churning about in the world of Lurhmania at the mo’, so we thought we’d chime in, and share some thoughts on the big picture, with some newer news thrown in.

With only a couple of exceptions I am a major fan of Luhrmann’s work. “Exceptions?” some will shriek, “How dare you?” But yes, I do qualify my enthusiasm. I think that Luhrmann, much like the scotch tape, is about the 3Ms: movement, music, and mise en scene. Words are not his bag, and as I value words, I’m less fond of the two films where he’s adapted great writers. Otherwise…

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Well, whattaya know? This one came out at the mid point of his life to date, when he was 30, and it’s 30 years old this year. I saw this when it came out or not long after, and liked it well enough at the time, though I seem to remember it being more modest in ambition than Lurhmann’s later movies. I would like to give it another viddy both because of all the work that’s ensued since, but also because I’ve spent the decades since becoming more interested in dance, having written about all the great society and ballroom teams like the Castles, the Astaires, Veloz and Yolanda, Adelaide and Hughes, and others. It would also be interesting to evaluate in light of the renewed popularity of the art form on reality TV etc.

Also there’s a semi-autobiographical element to the film that makes it interesting. Luhrmann’s IRL mother was a ballroom dance teacher and small town modiste, while his father ran a cinema and operated a filling station. Now THERE’s product of his upbringing! Luhrmann had devised Strictly Ballroom as a theatre piece first, then adapted it into his first film as director (though he had previously acted in a few). In 2014 it returned to being a theatre piece when it premiered as a stage musical. The show has played Sydney, Toronto and Leeds — doesn’t seem to be destined for Broadway any time soon.

Only tangentially relevant: the Paul McCartney song “Ballroom Dancing” turned 40 this year. Has nothing to do with this, but now it’s in my head.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Yes, I’m afraid this is one of the two Lurhmann films I didn’t care for at all. Didn’t like the leads, didn’t like the disrespect for the language, didn’t like the setting and (shockingly, given who we’re talking about) didn’t like the visuals. Everything just feels off. I don’t hate a punk love story about star-crossed lovers — that’s Sid and Nancy. I don’t hate revisiting and updating Romeo and Juliet, in fact it’s already been done and is my favorite musical, West Side Story. I loved Leo as a romantic lead in Titanic. But here I really hated him. And I just found the movie loud and obnoxious in a way that does not serve the story. Guns are more brutal than blades. Guns are weapons of mass destruction and instant death. They do not leaving breathing room for tenderness or, frankly, heroism. So this one was a big miscalculation, in my view. The main saving grace for me was the supporting cast, and Danes was appropriately cast.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

It’s the damnedest thing — I thought I had done a post on this movie, but there doesn’t seem to be one here. On my first viewing of the film in the cinema, the constant motion, colors, and cutting made my head spin and literally made me nauseous. But then I ended up seeing it several more times and kind of become obsessed with it, and dare I say, it gave me notions, made me a little crackers. I bought a copy back when people still bought DVDs. I’ve since written about the original venue itself, and about John Huston’s eponymous film, which is really about Toulouse-Lautrec (hilariously played in Luhrmann’s one by John Leguizamo). Now this movie IS romantic and tragic, and Luhrmann found his way there by expressing himself through visual, aural, musical, and kinetic pastiche. THAT is his metier, and it works seamlessly here. Nicole Kidman is at her bewitching best, displaying the very quality that was famously lacking in Eyes Wide Shut. And naturally I truly covet that Jim Broadbent role, Harold Zidler! Now we come to that bit of news I mentioned:

Moulin Rouge came to the Broadway stage in 2019 only to be rudely interrupted by the Covid epidemic. It’s been up and running for some months now and my old friend and former editor David Cote has penned the coffee table book about the show’s evolution. He previously wrote the equivalent book for the show Wicked. It has an interview with Luhrmann. A perfect gift idea for MANY people we head into the holidays. Get it here.

Australia (2008)

I confess I didn’t even know this existed until today (the movie, not the continent). But then I still haven’t caught up with Stingaree or The Sundowners, either. I liked that one where Paul Hogan carried that big knife around, though.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

I reviewed this one here; I think you’ll find that I disliked it rather strenuously. I’m not a Fitzgerald freak per se (as many truly are) but I do respect him enormously, and have known and loved this book well since I was a teenager, and Luhrmann truly missed the boat here. There’s bound to be more chatter on the topic in the near future as we’re approaching the centennial. I’m certain there will be events to mark it in Great Neck where I live (the setting of the book, and where Fitzgerald wrote a lot of it), in New York, and elsewhere. Anyway, my grouchy review here.

Elvis (2022)

Words can’t describe how much I loved this movie, certainly on par with Moulin Rouge. I think it is the best Elvis bio-pic by orders of magnitude. Not because of facts. Facts — feh! Luhrmann did something much better, he did that old fashioned Hollywood bio-pic thing in getting into the guts of the story and communicating the essence of the thing through instinct. It made me think of movies like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Henry King’s Jesse James — the historical arc is bent to suit the needs of the story. Elvis (the man and the movie) communicates to us through myth and symbolism. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not egregious on facts either, though it takes liberties here and there. But they and truly are not what’s important in storytelling. Luhrmann turns up the heat on his Elvis (Austin Butler) just enough to convey to modern audiences the King’s cultural significance. He captures the SPIRIT of the topic. Does he take dramatic license? What is Elvis about, if not license? So it’s appropriately operatic in the same way that Moulin Rouge is. Its biggest flaw to my mind was Tom Hank’s performance as Colonel Tom Parker, in which he tips his hand by letting the Dutch accent show through for the whole movie (the whole point of the Colonel is that no one KNEW he was Dutch until quite late in the game). It’s artificial and hokey, but then again that may be the point, as casting Hanks (the modern Jimmy Stewart) in the role in the first place may be. Anyway, lots of vague undifferentiated impressions, I know, but I’ve only seen it the once. You could fill a book with the finer points and intricacies of this incredible movie. See it now!