The Style of Baz Luhrmann: When It Works and When It Doesn't
Baz Luhrmann has had one of the most interesting film careers in recent memory. From box office hits to dismal failures, it's hard to think of a career quite like his. Over the course of his three decade long career, Luhrmann has developed a unique style that makes his films so easy to identify as his own, with his fast paced editing, striking visuals, and choice of music. After the recent success of Luhrmann's most recent project, Elvis, let's look back at the career of the famed Australian director.
Luhrmann made his directorial debut in 1992 with the release of Strictly Ballroom starring Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice, which follows a sort of "Ugly Duckling story" with the backdrop of a ridiculous, campy, over-the-top ballroom dance competition. Strictly Ballroom is very near to my heart as it's my second favorite Baz Luhrmann film and one that I used to frequently watch with my mom on rainy days. It is easily the most low budget of any Luhrmann film however it has more heart than any film you'll ever see. The story is largely based on the director's childhood, being brought up in his mother's dance studio. With wacky characters, ridiculous costumes, and timeless humor, Strictly Ballroom will always remain one of my favorite movies. It's an important stop in Luhrmann's filmography because it's an early example of the director's style. The cuts are short, the costumes are garish and extravagant. The characters are intense and obnoxious, and there are bright colors at every turn. The only thing missing is Luhrmann's signature soundtracks that would become a staple later in his career. The music of Strictly Ballroom is a lot more subdued and it doesn't become the focus of the scene like it would in some of his later films. Strictly Ballroom also serves as the first installment of Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy, a collection of movies made over the span of nine years that aren't related by plot but rather by their unique style of filmmaking and theatrical motifs. Overall, Strictly Ballroom serves as a great introduction to Luhrmann's work. Although it may not be the most emblematic, that film will appear later...
in 1996, the second installment in the Red Curtain Trilogy hit theaters, the iconic Romeo + Juliet. A modern interpretation of the Shakespeare play, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the titular roles. It was the first film to be produced by Luhrmann's production company: Bazmark Films. The movie was a gigantic success at the time, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, having a triple platinum selling soundtrack, and even beating James Cameron's Titanic for direction, screenplay, and music at the 1998 BAFTAS. It was met with unanimous applause at the time of release and is still looked back upon fondly by millions of fans worldwide. But did it age well? Ehhh...
Personally, I've never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet but it is absolutely emblematic of the director's style. Disorienting editing, over-the-top acting, extravagant costumes, this time with a signature Bazmark soundtrack. However, due to the fact that the dialogue has not been changed at all from the original Shakespearian play, I tend to find the movie a little off-putting at times. There's something about 90's teenagers speaking like they're from the 16th century that just takes me out of the moment. But if you enjoyed Romeo + Juliet, you're definitely not alone.
Next, we come to my favorite film not only by Baz Luhrmann, but also one of my favorites of all time: 2001's Moulin Rouge! The final installment in the Red Curtain Trilogy. The first Bazmark Production to win an Academy Award. Producer and designer, Catherine Martin would go on to win the Oscar for costume design, with several more nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress for Nicole Kidman. Moulin Rouge! was the first of Luhrmann's films to be a full-fledged musical. It was a period piece from 1899, set to the modern music of artists like David Bowie, Nirvana, Whitney Houston, Elt0n John, Madonna, and more. This time, the songs were being sung by the characters themselves, something Luhrmann hasn't recreated since. In my opinion, Moulin Rouge! is not only the best movie to come from Bazmark, but also the most emblematic of Luhrmann's style as a director. The sets are more extravagant than ever, the costumes are eye-catching and gorgeous, and the performances are over-the-top. What sets Luhrmann's movies apart for me is his use of modern music in period pieces, and in Moulin Rouge! you can see the director just dive head first into this risky but rewarding style of filmmaking. This was repeated in Luhrmann's 2016 Netflix series The Get Down, which had good reviews but was cancelled after one season. The series took place in 1970's New York but included music from artists like Christina Aguilera, Leon Bridges, Jaden Smith, and Janelle Monáe. While Moulin Rouge! was the first instance of Luhrmann putting modern music in period pieces, it sure wasn't the last....unfortunately.
In 2013, Baz Luhrmann was given the biggest budget of his career to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby onto film. Multiple attempts have been made in the past to turn the great American novel into a great American movie but up until that point, none had been successful. Needless to say after his work on Moulin Rouge! expectations were high for Bazmark's take on Gatsby. The movie marked the return of Leonardo DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann working together for the first time since Romeo + Juliet. Although it was a success at the box office, Luhrmann's Great Gatsby was met with very mixed reviews and is not looked back upon fondly today, despite having some defenders. While there were issues with the editing, story, acting, and other things, what stuck out the most to me was the soundtrack. In a lot of ways, Luhrmann's outrageous editing and cinematography worked in terms of the party scenes, but the music was very off-putting.
The modern music against the backdrop of a period piece worked in Moulin Rouge! and The Get Down because the characters were singing them and in a way, the style was changed to reflect the time period. While Moulin Rouge! used "Smells Like Teen Spirit", it wasn't grunge, it was sung like it would've been at the time. This way, it's a fun reference to put in the film while not coming off as jarring or inappropriate. The Great Gatsby is not a musical, so it couldn't be exactly the same as Luhrmann's other work however there were certainly changes that could've been made to the soundtrack. In Gatsby, the music isn't sung, it's played, meaning there is often footage of the 1920's with Jay-Z or Fergie playing in the background. It doesn't feel...right. It takes something that was so iconic about Baz Luhrmann's filmmaking and exposes its flaws, in his most ambitious project nonetheless.
This brings us to Bazmark's most recent project, one you've definitely seen a million ads for by now: Elvis. A biopic about the "King of Rock n' Roll," his meteoric rise and the story of his toxic, oppressive manager. In a lot of ways, Elvis felt like a welcome return-to-form for the director. It tells a clear story while also staying true to the unique style of Baz Luhrmann that we've all come to know and love over the years. While The Great Gatsby can be described as the epitome of style over substance filmmaking, Elvis feels like a gradual, well-needed step back. It feels like the director and the team behind the film learned their lesson from Gatsby and are more focused on telling a story rather than showcasing a bunch of visuals.
Baz Luhrmann is a director that will always have a special place in my heart. If I hadn't seen Moulin Rouge! at 9 years old, I probably would not currently be in film school, studying what I love and meeting so many creative, brilliant people. It goes without saying, but I cannot wait to see what Bazmark does next.