Monday, September 26, 2022

From Strictly Ballroom to Elvis: the career of Baz Luhrmann – sorted | Baz Luhrmann

HASs we know from having had our senses pounded by various glitter-filled, hyperactive and blindingly bright spectacles, Baz Luhrmann’s films don’t talk – they shout. The Sydney-born author practices a film-making ethos he and veteran editor Jill Billcock (who cut his first three films: the “red curtain trilogy”) wisely described as “frame fucking”.

Luhrmann is a polarizing director, as everybody 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 in, subtext. Everything is always on the surface. There are broad, agreed upon meanings – for instance, Romeo + Juliet and his new film Elvis are obviously tragedies. Problems arise when his work cries out for considered layering of themes and messages, only for viewers to discover there is always little under the bonnet.

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

7. Australia (2008)

Nicole Kidman standing next to Hugh Jackman riding a horse in a scene from Australia
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Australia. Photograph: 20 Century Fox/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Luhrmann’s superhuman ego is stamped across every frame of this stupefyingly sheep-brained epic: a thick, buttery goo of cringe-inducing stereotypes and melodrama, told in a style of an extreme kind of visual jibber-jabber. Titling the film “Once Upon a Time in Australia” might have given it a gentler reception and suggested the director’s tongue wasn’t all that far from his cheek. But no, Luhrmann couldn’t help himself. The film rightly sparked a shitstorm of debate, including a widely read takedown from Germaine Greer sampling a review from yours truly.

Brandishing fridge-sized pecs, Hugh Jackman stars as a drover convinced by Nicole Kidman’s prissy station owner to move livestock across many miles of treacherous land, in a plot recalling The Overlanders. The film seems to go on for an eternity, jerking between shampoo commercial romance, retrograde depictions of Indigenous people 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 didn’t even read the book.” F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant critique of the American Dream uses the excessiveness of the Jazz Age to construct a chimera: the illusionary happiness provided by glitz, glamor and opulence, masking foundations of broken dreams and pointlessness. In Luhrmann’s hands, parties hosted by the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) are purely fabulous, dreamy spectacle – a gross misinterpretation of the source material.

As usual, Luhrmann literalizes symbolic meaning; when narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) reflects that, “I was him too, looking up and wondering”, the director cuts to a shot of Maguire, looking up at Maguire and wondering. This glossily berserk picture book approach reduces every human interaction to fluff and renders his actors impotent.

5. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

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

This intensely gaudy jukebox musical initially struck me as being like a huge and hideous alien plant that never stops flowering – I wanted to dive in and kill it from the inside, like Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors. Subsequently, I’ve kind of come around to it, or at least made peace with it. Red Mill! is a carnivalesque experience with a wild, incantatory energy, even before Kylie Monogue appears as an absinthe fairy singing “the hills are alive”.

Ewan McGregor’s poet describes the titular night club as “a kingdom of night-time pleasures”; Moulin Rouge!’s fans may view the film in a similar way. McGregor and star performer Satine (Kidman) fall in love, belting out various songs to very subtly and in no way obviously reiterated the point – such as I Was Made For Loving You Baby. Largely devoid in narrative, careening through an anachronistic splatter of styles and genres, with a modus operandi to conjure sheer stagey spectacle, this is “pure” Luhrmann.

4. Elvis (2022)

Elvis is less a biopic than a circus act, with a preposterous performance from Tom Hanks as the King’s evil manager, Colonel Tom Parker, pitched somewhere between Foghorn Leghorn and a Bond villain. Framing the story through Parker forges an unexpected pathway into the life of the titular superstar, who is used and abused by his portly puppet master in pursuit of the greatest show on earth (and the making of a ton of cash).

As usual Luhrmann literalises, turning Suspicious Minds into an on-the-nose comment on the fraught relationship between Elvis (sensationally played by Austin Butler) and the Colonel.

By taking an unusual route, the director avoids some of the biopic genre’s greatest pitfalls: thankfully, there are no goofy lightbulb moments attempting to simplify the creative process. It’s long and exhausting, the film’s energy coming and going in waves – but when it peaks, Elvis delivers an unusual haunting intensity that will reverberate after the credits roll.

3. The Get Down (2016)

The Get Down
The Get Down. Photograph: 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, kicked off with a 90-minute episode directed by Luhrmann before he passed the baton on to other directors. Unlike many Luhrmann joints, The Get Down doesn’t feel rushed or frantic; in fact, it almost feels measured, or at least bearing 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 cuts to a bright light inside a tunnel.

The centerpiece is a nightclub and dance-off sequence (featuring some sweet moves from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that anchors a large chunk of the first episode. Human elements shine in ways they rarely do in Luhrmann productions, thanks to a fresh-faced cast including Justice Smith as young poet Zeke and Herizen F Guardiola as aspiring singer Mylene. You like these people, you want to spend time with them. The story is about dreaming big, making mistakes and growing up.

2. Romeo + Juliet (1996)

I recommend watching Luhrmann’s Shakespeare a̶d̶a̶p̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ extravaganza with the subtitles turned on, with the text size enlarged if possible. That way The Bard’s words become absorbed into the film’s visual fabric and better compete with its insane loudness. Introductory scenes deploying rapid fire imagery and displaying text inserts announcing the cast feel like a trailer for the film itself: one of humankind’s best-known and most loved doomed romances, reduced to the language of marketing shorthand.

But the broader experience actually hangs together bizarrely well, fusing the dense, archaic loquaciousness of Shakespeare’s writing with Luhrmann’s sensory-slamming chutzpah. This tale has been adapted ad nauseam, but the sets and production design feel wonderfully fresh – from the ruined theater on the beach, to the cathedral full of candles and neon blue crucifixes, to the now classic first scene between the titular lovers, 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. Photograph: Rank/Allstar

As Orson Welles put it: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” With his smallest budget by far, Luhrmann’s feature debut forced him to stay grounded in characterization and human performance, directing his actors towards screeching cartoon qualities and bringing plenty of movement to the camera. At one point, a grandma tells Paul Mercurio’s ballroom dancer that he doesn’t know anything about rhythm, though the opposite applies to the film itself – beautifully edited by the great Billcock, all the way to an unforgettable finale involving Scott (Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice) competing at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship.

The film’s scratchy, homemade quality initially makes aspects of it feel unsettled, even a little awkward. But ultimately this works in its favour, bringing an appealing homely texture that slicker, more expensive films cannot convey. The famous Coca-Cola rooftop dance scene is one of cinema’s loveliest product placements; the emotions of the moment not just overpowering the advertisement, but turning it into something luminously beautiful.

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