From Strictly Ballroom to Elvis: Baz Luhrmann’s career – sorted | Baz Luhrmann

AAs we know from having had our senses exhilarated by various scintillating, hyperactive and blindingly bright spectacles, Baz Luhrmann’s films don’t talk, they scream. The Sydney-born author practices a cinematic philosophy that he and veteran editor Jill Billcock (who edited his first three films: the ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’) have wisely described as a ‘frame kiss’.

Luhrmann is a polarizing director, as everyone and their dog have pointed out. The trick to making sense of Luhrmann is to understand that he doesn’t really consciously manipulate, or even necessarily believe, the subtext. Everything is always on the surface. There are broad, agreed-upon meanings – for example, Romeo + Juliet and his new movie Elvis are obviously tragedies. Problems arise when his work calls for a thoughtful layering of themes and messages, only for viewers to find there’s always little under the hood.

Luhrmann is at his best when he focuses on musical inspirations and performative elements. His two best films are very good; his two worst are cataclysmically gruesome; and the rest are spectacles that are nothing if not intoxicating. Here they are, ranked from lemon to (apologies) Luhrmannastic.

7. Australia (2008)

Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Australia. Photography: 20 Century Fox/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Luhrmann’s superhuman ego is imprinted through every frame of this staggering sheep-brain epic: a thick, buttery goo of stereotypes and cringe-inducing melodrama, told in a style of an extreme jibber-jabber type. visual. Entitling the film “Once Upon a Time in Australia” might have given it a softer reception and suggested the director’s tongue wasn’t so far from his cheek. But no, Luhrmann couldn’t help it. The film deservedly sparked a firestorm of debate, including a widely read takedown of Germaine Greer sampling a review from yours truly.

Brandishing fridge-sized pecs, Hugh Jackman stars as a herdsman convinced by prissy station owner Nicole Kidman to move cattle across miles of dangerous land, in a plot reminiscent of The Overlanders. The film seems to go on for an eternity, oscillating between commercial shampoo romance, retrograde portrayals of Indigenous peoples as magical mystics, and an endless parade of Hollywood cliches.

6. The Great Gatsby (2013)

Rare is the literary adaptation that makes you think: “I’m pretty sure the director hasn’t even read the book. F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant critique of the American Dream uses Jazz Age excess to construct a chimera: the illusory happiness afforded by glitz, glamor and opulence, obscuring the foundations of shattered dreams and pointlessness. . In Luhrmann’s hands, the parties thrown by the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) are a purely fabulous, dreamlike sight – a gross misinterpretation of the source material.

As usual, Luhrmann literalizes the symbolic meaning; when narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) thinks “I was him too, looking up and wondering”, the director cuts to a shot of Maguire, looking at Maguire and wondering. This brilliant, crazy picture book approach cuts every human interaction to fluff and renders its actors powerless.

5. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman at the Moulin Rouge!
Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!. Photography: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

This intensely garish jukebox musical at first struck me as a huge, hideous alien plant that never stops blooming – I wanted to dive in and kill it from the inside, like Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors. Afterwards, I kind of went along with it, or at least made peace with it. Red Mill! is a carnival experience with wild and incantatory energy, even before Kylie Monogue appears as an absinthe fairy singing “the hills are alive”.

Ewan McGregor’s poet describes the titular nightclub as “a realm of nocturnal pleasures”; Moulin Rouge fans! can see the film in the same way. McGregor and star performer Satine (Kidman) fall in love, belting out various songs to very subtly and by no means obviously reiterate the point – like I Was Made For Loving You Baby. Largely devoid of narrative, traversing an anachronistic splatter of styles and genres, with a modus operandi to evoke pure stage spectacle, it’s “pure” Luhrmann.

4. Elvis (2022)

Elvis is less of a biopic than a sideshow, with Tom Hanks’ absurd performance as the king’s evil manager, Colonel Tom Parker, thrown somewhere between Foghorn Leghorn and a Bond villain. Framing the story through Parker opens up an unexpected path in the life of the titular superstar, who is used and abused by his portly puppeteer in pursuit of the greatest show on earth (and to make a ton of money).

As usual, Luhrmann literalizes, turning Suspicious Minds into a direct commentary on the strained relationship between Elvis (sensationally played by Austin Butler) and the Colonel.

By taking an unusual route, the director avoids some of the biggest pitfalls of the biopic genre: thankfully, there are no awkward light bulb moments trying to simplify the creative process. It’s long and exhausting, the film’s energy comes and goes in waves – but when it peaks, Elvis delivers an unusually haunting intensity that will reverberate past the credits.

3. The Descent (2016)

Lowering. Photography: Courtesy of Netflix/Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Luhrmann’s two-part Netflix series, themed around disco culture and the rise of hip-hop in 1970s New York City, opened with a 90-minute episode directed by Luhrmann before handing over to d other directors. Unlike many Luhrmann joints, The Get Down doesn’t feel rushed or frantic; in fact, it almost feels measure, or at least carrying a more developed sense of time and place. And yes literal Luhrmann strikes again: in an early scene, when a performer raps the line “I see the light, it’s right there, at the tunnel”, he of course switches to a bright light inside a tunnel.

The centerpiece is a nightclub and dance sequence (with some smooth moves from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that anchors much of the first episode. The human elements shine like they rarely do in Luhrmann’s productions, thanks to a fresh-faced cast including Justice Smith as young poet Zeke and Herizen F Guardiola as budding singer Mylène. You like these people, you want to spend time with them. The story is about dreaming big, making mistakes and growing.

2. Romeo + Juliet (1996)

I recommend watching Shakespeare a̶d̶a̶p̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ extravagance with the subtitles turned on, with the text size enlarged if possible. This way, The Bard’s words are absorbed into the film’s visual fabric and better rival its insane volume. Intro scenes rolling out rapid-fire footage and displaying text inserts announcing the cast look like a trailer for the film itself: one of mankind’s most well-known and beloved doomed romances, reduced to the language of marketing shorthand.

But the larger experience meshes eerily well, merging the dense, archaic loquacity of Shakespeare’s writing with the sensory chutzpah of Luhrmann. This tale has been adapted to the point of nausea, but the production’s sets and design are wonderfully fresh – from the crumbling theater on the beach, to the cathedral full of candles and neon blue crucifixes, to the now classic first scene. between the titular lovers, each catching each other’s gaze through the glass of an aquarium.

1. Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Tara Morice and Paul Mercurio in Strictly Ballroom.
Tara Morice and Paul Mercurio in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Rank/Allstar

As Orson Welles said: “The enemy of art is the absence of limits.” With its smallest budget by far, Luhrmann’s feature debut forced it to stay grounded in characterization and human performance, gearing its actors towards screaming cartoonish qualities and bringing plenty of movement to the camera. At one point a grandmother tells Paul Mercurio’s ballroom dancer that he knows nothing of rhythm, although the reverse applies to the film itself – beautifully put together by the great Billcock, until an unforgettable finale involving Scott (Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice) competing at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix Dance Championship.

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The handcrafted and rough quality of the film initially makes certain aspects unstable, even a little awkward. But ultimately, that works in its favor, bringing a warm, appealing texture that smoother, more expensive films can’t convey. The famous Coca-Cola rooftop dance scene is one of cinema’s finest product placements; the emotions of the moment not only dominate the ad, but transform it into something beautifully luminous.

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