Australia’s wild blockbuster king claims May as The Spool’s Filmmaker of the Month. Join us all, you Children of the Revolution!
Baz Luhrmann is a blockbuster-scale filmmaker and a proudly idiosyncratic one. He did not just adapt Romeo and Juliet to the screen and set it in contemporary times—he made it a full-on heroic bloodshed picture, a descendant of John Woo as much as William Shakespeare. The director did not just put millions into The Great Gatsby, he turned it into a hyperreal extravaganza. He created a world whose intensity and grandiosity mirror the persona Gatsby hopes will build him the world he wants. Luhrmann didn’t settle for a bland telling of Elvis Presley’s life and times. Instead, he invoked and warped the iconography of Ed Herron, C.C. Beck, and Mac Raboy’s Captain Marvel Jr.—a superhero Presley loved to the point that he used him as a style template.
Luhrmann has an eye for indelible imagery and an ear for how music—especially contemporary rock and pop—can weave into a film, whether as an explicit part of the story (as in Elvis and Moulin Rouge!) or as part of the sensory experience (as in The Great Gatsby).
He’s also a fearless filmmaker. For example, he recreated the jukebox musical by bringing a mashup sensibility to Moulin Rouge! The film recasts everything from Elton John’s “Your Song” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in ways that honor their originals while putting them in entirely new contexts. Similarly, who but Luhrmann would look at the literary classic Gatsby and think it would be natural to be filmed and presented in 3-D? Moreover, he made the format work, something most films had struggled with in the wake of Avatar’s revitalization of the format.
However, even with all the whiz-bang technology, visual sumptuousness, and all-encompassing music and sound design, Luhrmann ensures his actors pop. For instance, consider Austin Butler’s cache pre and post-Elvis. Look how the likes of Elizabeth Debicki and Isla Fischer crackle with playfulness in Gatsby. Even in his least enthusiastically greeted Australia, critics took positive note of the lead performances by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. He’s one of the most style-forward directors of his generation. Yet, he never loses sight of his performers and makes sure the audience doesn’t either.
His work is entirely itself. It repulses and enthralls. His excess has repeatedly proven his greatest strength and his most significant handicap. Luhrmann can never do anything halfway. That kind of commitment demands our attention. That’s why we’re giving it, and Luhrmann, the entire month of May.
The Films of Baz Luhrmann: