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A Flair for the Dramatic
Baz Luhrmann’s films adhere more closely to the conventions of Ancient Greek or Brechtian Theatre than to modern tastes for realism. Luhrmann frames his spectacular stories in such a way that the audience is constantly aware that they’re watching a show. In fact, most of his films concern themselves with performance and showmanship, often containing shows within the show.
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Luhrmann is an auteur, but not in a sense that’s easy to define. His style is not marked by signposts or signature shots like Wes Anderson’s title cards or Spike Lee’s dolly rides. He does, however, have a distinct touch and there are certain common threads between his films that make them easily recognizable as his work. For example, his soundtracks are blends of music from different eras, there are usually more than a few dreamlike montage sequences, and all of his films are polished and ornate to the point of being decadent.
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One phrase that commonly gets repeated in descriptions of Luhrmann’s films is “over the top.” He crafts unrestrained visual collages that ride the line between being kitschy and euphoric, which prevents his films from having universal appeal, but when his over-the-top style hits its mark, it makes for true movie magic.
Baz Luhrmann – La Bohème
The closest thing to an auteur’s signature Luhrmann uses is the mantra “Truth. Beauty. Freedom. Love.” The motto for the bohemians in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ seems also to be the ethic of every leading character in Luhrmann’s films. The words even made a visual reappearance in the opening of Luhrmann’s most recent film: ‘Elvis.’ From ‘Strictly Ballroom’ to the nearly three-hour epic ‘Australia,’ something of the bohemian spirit prevails in Luhrmann’s movies.
This is most obvious in the films that are explicitly about artists. ‘Strictly Ballroom’ follows Scott (Paul Mercurio), a professional dancer, and Fran (Tara Morice), the woman he teaches to be his dance partner. Scott teaches Fran to follow her own heartbeat to find her rhythm. The pair prove their love to Scott’s parents, as well as the merit in their unconventional style of dance, through a breathtaking dance routine. The story drips with romance and idealism.
Similarly, ‘Moulin Rouge!’ tells the love story of aspiring writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) and the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). This tale of forbidden love takes place in the heart of Bohemian Paris, the namesake of Puccini’s La Bohème (of which Luhrmann directed a stage adaptation). The ideals of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love are opposed by the transactional nature of prostitution represented by the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), which results in the sort of beautiful tragedy that romantic types relish.
Luhrmann’s most recent film, a dizzying reflection on the life of Elvis and the iconography of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, paints the musical icon as a quixotic superhero. The most effective and transporting scenes are those when Elvis (Austin Butler) performs, and the music transforms the entire world. This all-consuming energy and its commercialization by Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) reflects the seedy, tragically beautiful world of Bohemian Paris as portrayed in ‘Moulin Rouge!’
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These three films are sensual and rich, romantic to their core, and, by my estimation, Luhrmann’s best. It takes an idealist’s eye to portray Paris in the early 20th century or the mythical persona of Elvis Presley. Telling a realistic, gritty story about either of those subjects would somehow miss the psychological mark. There are things that hold transcendent meaning, and Luhrmann deals with them as they live in our minds because it’s somehow more truthful to do so than to recreate the objective truth. ‘Strictly Ballroom’ does the same with ballroom dancing, heightening the drama that already exists in the competitive dance world with unironic flair.
Though Romeo, Juliet, and Jay Gatsby are not bohemian artists, these characters are romantic in the same way, wrapped up in high ideals and pursuing something just out of reach. One of Luhrmann’s most recognizable directorial practices is the inclusion of both modern music and music that’s contemporaneous with his movies’ settings. It’s thrown into particularly sharp relief in his adaptations.
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‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’ sees the classic story retold in modern Miami, but featuring costuming that’s heavily influenced by Elizabethan Theatre, and a musical mix of hip-hop, prog rock, and pop. ‘The Great Gatsby,’ meanwhile, shows a dazzlingly bright version of 1920s America. Some of the shots in the film are framed with art deco metalwork, and some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words appear on the screen before wafting away. Its soundtrack, too, features a mélange of genres.
Neither the heightened realities nor the blended soundtracks are unique to Luhrmann’s adapted films, but in the adaptations, it makes his artistic goals far more explicit. His versions of Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby attempt to capture the timeless, romantic heart of those stories. Luhrmann tracks the connections between then and now, bringing closer to home the motivations of nearly unbelievable characters.
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His anachronistic stylings also heighten the feeling that we, the audience, are attending a show. We are simultaneously pulled into the sweep of the story and reminded that it has been packaged and delivered for our entertainment. This is, I think, one of the dynamics that make Luhrmann’s films so divisive. It’s a somewhat obvious conceit, and yet no one else pulls it off with such gusto.
Opulence Can Be Exhausting
What makes Luhrmann’s films so compelling can also be what makes them headache-inducing. He matches larger-than-life subject matter with larger-than-life tricks of editing, including swirling, sweeping dolly shots, blurred close-ups immediately followed by still snapshots, or even, in the case of ‘Elvis,’ a blackout by way of a shrinking point of light becoming so small you have to squint to see it. That last example is perhaps the best to illustrate what I mean.
At the end of ‘Elvis,’ I watched the blackout in awe. I didn’t want the spirit of Elvis to leave the theater. And yet, I had a headache by the time the movie was over, worsened by squinting at that pinprick of light. The same thing has happened with ‘Moulin Rouge!’ each of the dozens of times I’ve seen it. There are other filmmakers who bring me to the edge of my seat without the subsequent need for Advil, but there is something sublime in the sheer opulence of Baz Luhrmann’s films. He manages to capture the soaring sensation you feel when you dance to your favorite music or arrive at a travel destination, as well as the excitement of seeing something you’re not supposed to.
‘Australia’: The Odd One Out
A fixation on opulence and romance makes Luhrmann a singularly qualified candidate to take on subjects like Romeo and Juliet or Elvis Presley, but what happens when he’s given the entirety of Australia to work with?
Luhrmann’s campy epic is a romance fit for Hollywood’s Golden Age between the refined Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and the wily, brutish “Drover” (Hugh Jackman). Their trek through the Australian outback is guided by the mystical influence of King George (David Gulpilil), the Aboriginal grandfather to Nullah (Brandon Walters), a mixed-race child being tracked down by the vengeful Neil Fletcher (David Wenham). Epic in scale, but still executed with Luhrmann’s over-the-top sensibilities, ‘Australia’ reads a little differently than his other films.
Whereas the elephant in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and the abandoned proscenium arch on the beach in ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’ allude to larger bodies of shared knowledge between the audience and the director, the symbolism in ‘Australia’ is self-contained. The relationship between the romantic leads and Nullah, for example, reads as an allegory for Australians of European descent and Aboriginal Australians learning to overcome their differences and doesn’t rely so much on imagery from our collective subconscious. Rather than being riddled with cultural references in service of a new vision, ‘Australia’ is a pastiche of an older style of filmmaking leaning towards the melodramatic. The symbolism can be picked apart on its own terms, and it somehow feels less impactful and more cliché.
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Bazmark: The Odd One In
Born Mark Anthony, Bazmark Luhrmann earned the nickname “Baz” in high school and later changed his name by deed, combining his names into one. Luhrmann has repeated in a good number of interviews that he grew up in a small town, entranced by the silver screen. Perhaps his love affair with stories being told from across the Pacific Ocean in Hollywood is what made him into such a distinct personality, and subsequently a director like no other in the business.
Regardless of how you feel about Luhrmann’s films, there is something so passionate and alive in them that it’s hard to deny their significance. As movies and television become more and more cynical and true-to-life, Luhrmann’s films stand out as bastions of unapologetic Romanticism.
He has managed to secure large budgets for every film following his debut, and even directed the most expensive advertisement of all time: ‘No. 5 the Film’ for Chanel. Something about his work feels so vitally important, especially for anyone in show business. Something touching the pulse of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.
By Kevin Hauger
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