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For the Love of Luhrmann

By Jonathan Kiefer

Movie maximalist (and Adobe MAX conference keynote speaker) Baz Luhrmann’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity can’t be faked. As Luhrmann revs up for The Get Down, a Netflix series about the birth of hip-hop, we look back on how a kid from rural Australia turned his love of modern culture into the art of putting on a big show.

What does it mean to be Luhrmannesque? Consider that scene early in Moulin Rouge! where the ragtag theater troupe roughs out the basic narrative arc of their show. It happens as a frantic group-improv pitch meeting with their investor, everybody making up the story very much on the fly, nearly losing it at the last minute, before the poet, played by Ewan McGregor, finally proclaims, “It’s about love!” Isn’t that a little cheesy? Except it isn’t, quite. Somehow, in context, it seems like an actual epiphany. Also Luhrmannesque: Presentation matters. This won’t be any old love story, but rather, in the words of the club owner played by Jim Broadbent, “a magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment. It will be: Spectacular Spectacular.” You get the sense that some of Luhrmann’s own pitch meetings may have gone like this. 

Surveying Baz Luhrmann’s career feels like getting whacked in the face, albeit playfully, by a thick issue of Australian Vogue (for which he once served as guest editor), to which you’re alerted by a whiff of Chanel No. 5 (for which he’s made commercials). Sure, there are habits. Call it a tendency toward heavy emphasis, as in writing the quotable lines on screen as they’re spoken or sung—even in that Chanel commercial, with its takeaway refrain, “To my heart I must be true.” That’s a typical Luhrmann message, a little pearl of sincerity tucked into gilded layers of flamboyance.

“I like it when the audience is aware that they’re participating in the experience,” Luhrmann told the Hollywood Reporter once. “It’s different from a psychological drama, where the audience can be passive.” It’s his way of emphasizing artifice with the shock tactics of anachronism and unlikely cultural appropriation. 

The essential Bazness of Luhrmann’s huge, busy, otherwise old-fashioned movies is in the soundtrack, with a pastiche of contemporary pop. And not just pop: It took some audacity for Luhrmann to reclaim Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz from 2001: A Space Odyssey for the opening of his debut Strictly Ballroom; on the other hand, it was a practical choice for a movie about dance. Likewise, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was famously moviefied in 1979 by Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but that composition appeared only one year before F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby; doesn’t it therefore seem natural in a film version of the book? Not since Bugs Bunny’s opera numbers have old classics been so spiritedly reworked. Fittingly for a maestro of remix showmanship, Luhrmann’s new series The Get Down is a hip-hop origin story of the South Bronx in the late ’70s, due to premiere on Netflix next year.

One critic called Moulin Rouge! the great musical of our time, but only upon reconsideration eight years after panning it. The expected post-modern stance is weary and joyless; people get annoyed to see Luhrmann having such a good time. And making a profit. Most recently his Gatsby gambit paid of handsomely even in the book’s native land; meanwhile Luhrmann remains a box-office champion in Australia, with four out of 10 of that country’s top-grossing films of all time.

LOOK LIKE YOU’RE IN LOVE

Born Mark Anthony Luhrmann in Sydney in 1962, he grew up in the boondocks of New South Wales. From working at the gas station and the movie theater owned by his father, he learned to attend to and comprehend the basic human needs for fuel and revelry. From his dance-instructor mother, he acquired enough direct experience of competitive ballroom dancing to write a play about it and later his first feature film, Strictly Ballroom. “What works,” Roger Ebert wrote of that film, essentially setting up Luhrmann’s career, “is an exuberance that cannot be faked.”

A New York Times magazine profile described Luhrmann’s coterie as a “circus run like an army.” The reporter observed Luhrmann in his natural habitat, taking meetings from bed, with wife Catherine Martin (the Oscar-winning designer of his productions and costumes) and laptop-wielding assistants. How preposterous—and yet how disappointing any scenario even slightly more ascetic would have been. The Bazness of Baz is, foremost, a bigness. Luhrmann’s notes to self, we learned, include “Simplify and minimize.”

No, really, he means that. It’s right there in Strictly Ballroom, when the mousy, pratfall-prone Fran (Tera Morice) first gets the attention of her iconoclastic would-be dance partner, Scott (Paul Mercurio), with a sheepish bit of advice: “If you kept it simpler, and danced from the heart….” On paper this might seem like textbook triteness, but the moment plays with such sincerity. Scott soon replies with Luhrmann-like direction: “We’re telling a story.  The rhumba’s a dance of love. Look at me like you’re in love.” She does, and off they go.

The Luhrmann oeuvre contains an abundance of tragically star-crossed lovers, with shouting matches and “She doesn’t love you!” upheavals as dramatic high points. And yet, by and large, the movies aren’t bummers. Is it because they can’t sit still long enough to mope? Is it that the man himself is a license-taking outsider and therefore all the more enthusiastic a visitor to enchanted lands—turn-of-the-century Paris, Jazz Age Long Island, and the South Bronx of the 1970s?  What’s been consistent even as the scope of Luhrmann’s work has enlarged is the exuberance and a through-and-through theatricality—unfakeable and undeniable. As the mantra for Bazmark Inq., his production company, goes, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

He almost made a film about Alexander the Great, but Oliver Stone beat him to it. He was offered the first Harry Potter movie, but he turned it down to make Moulin Rouge! instead. And while it’s fun to imagine what personal wizardry Luhrmann might have brought to Hogwarts, the question doesn’t feel urgent; that franchise didn’t need him. Hollywood musicals, on the other hand, seemed down for the count until Luhrmann came along and renewed their possibilities.

And weren’t we kind of asking for that? Hadn’t we ourselves already become gaudy tourists of Bohemialand by then anyway? How many Toulouse-Lautrec posters already had decorated dorm-room walls, how many boutique producers of artisanal absinthe already had started popping up? Maybe what it means to be Luhrmannesque, then, is simply to be the biggest entertainment our era deserves.