With the release of The Great Gatsby, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back on the career of The Glossy Aussie, Baz Luhrmann. This screenwriter/director began his career with the so-called “Red Curtain” trilogy — a group of films in collaboration with the screenwriter Craig Pearce that reveled in their own theatricality. He followed them with two ambitious Hollywood-style historical spectacles, the aforementioned Gatsby and a paean to his home nation, Australia.
Which of his films are worth watching? Which should you watch first? For a range of opinions, I reached out to filmmakers Yfke van Berckelaer (her Vimeo) and Micah Baskir (aka MTB, aka Jeddy Rice). For good measure, I also surveyed musician Lillian Parker, aka Ukelilli. What follows is our own personal rankings of Luhrmann’s all-singing, all-dancing filmography.
Premise: Scott Hastings has been training in ballroom dancing since the age of six with his eye on winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. But his deployment of some non-sanctioned moves in an early qualifier causes a crisis with his partner Liz (Gia Carides), his mum (Pat Thomson) and the sport’s most influential judge (John Hannan). Tara Morice plays the homely Spanish girl Fran who believes in Scott’s new moves and teaches him some moves of her own.
John says: The acting and directing choices in this film are campier than I normally prefer. The story is almost ridiculously crude (the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix is one-step removed from the Catalina Wine Mixer in Step Brothers as a plot-important event that’s rammed down your throat) and yet… And yet this movie wears its heart on its sleeve, and the heart is in the right place. This is a great introduction to Luhrmann’s no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, and the only place you can see how creative he can be with a limited budget.
Yfke says: In general I am a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s work. He has a style all of his own and that’s rare these days. Also, if I can quote my brother on this, “Any male director who can rock two pigtails ranks high in my book!” In this first feature, Luhrmann shows how great he is with combining music with images and his uniquely explosive directorial style. We’ve seen many versions of the Cinderella story and yet in his hands it once again feels totally new.
MTB says: For me this is the most forgettable film Baz Luhrmann has made. I swear I’ve seen this film at least five times and remember next-to-nothing about it — except my lackluster reaction. Like many of Luhrmann’s films, people cherish it deeply. So, curious, I re-watched it to determine what magic I’m missing. With Strictly Ballroom, I can confidently say: nothing. For a man who uses style for substance, this just doesn’t have any of either for me to care about.
Lillian says: I saw this several years ago and don’t remember it AT ALL. Seems kinda strange for a Baz Luhrmann movie. I don’t think anyone would ever call this man’s work easily forgotten… I don’t remember disliking it. I really want to rewatch — it might land higher up than Romeo + Juliet then. But without the advantage of a recent viewing, I’ll have to put it at #4.
Premise: Adapting Shakespeare’s stageplay to modern-day, cinematic gang warfare, we find the star-crossed lovers Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Clare Danes) brought to desperation by their families’ blood feud.
John says: Because the archaic words play like edgy modern slang and because Luhrmann carefully underlines key plot points with his visuals — and also because yeah, Shakespeare wrote a pretty good story — audiences really got behind this adaptation of Romeo + Juliet. I remember seeing it as an impressionable teen and really loving this film.
Yfke says: Also a great film, well-acted and well-told. I’d like to say that with a story as good as Romeo and Juliet you can’t go wrong, but sadly history has proven that you can, and very much so. Luckily this one did it right, very very right. Since Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet we’ve seen a lot of modern-day set Shakespeare. He paved the way for that (at least in the mainstream sense) and opened up Shakespeare’s words to a new generation in an original way. Setting Romeo and Juliet in modern day Venice Beach is a great hook, and he executed it to perfection. Even though we we’ve heard or seen or read the story many times already, this movie manages to feel modern and fresh.
MTB says: Like a catchy pop song, this film provides a fantastic combination of joyful and awful moments. In reflecting on this film, I often focus on the inspired moments rather than the cheesy camp that flows just as freely. With one of Shakespeare’s most accessible stories, Romeo + Juliet is a safe movie to start with for anyone who is curious about Luhrmann’s filmmaking approach.
Lillian says: I’ve seen this one twice and over the years and my perspective has changed — I would hope matured? I’ve been a huge Shakespeare fan since grade school, and in high school when I saw this movie in theaters I was, dare I say, offended. Leo Dio was just this huge heart-throb, Claire Danes was weird-looking and overrated by my taste, and what that crazy Australian did to The Bard was absolutely atrocious. I didn’t like seeing Shakespeare modernized. However, over years of reading, seeing and studying Shakespeare, my interest in such productions has broadened. There’s stuff I remember even loving the first time I saw it — the dance scenes, the soundtrack (I was 15, okay?). I loved Paul Rudd (as Paris) and Harold Perrineau (as Mercutio). The second time I saw it, I liked the actors a bit better — definitely how young they seemed. But there’s stuff I remember REALLY disliking that I still disliked the second time — the rhythm of some of those scenes was just too rushed and the “do you mock at me” scene was too loud and crazy. As I mentioned above, since I don’t really remember Strictly Ballroom, this one has landed itself right in the middle at #3.
Premise: Naïve English writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) gets his eyes opened to Bohemian Paris and to love when he meets a dwarf named Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and a courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman). The movie is a musical which repurposes modern pop songs to capture the characters’ feelings.
John says: I can’t stand this movie. Okay, I take that back, I like the “Roxanne” sequence. The rest of this movie rubbed me so much the wrong way that it has been on my “never watch again” list ever since I first saw it in theaters. I hated the characters, I hated what Luhrmann did with the songs, I hated Luhrmann’s green fairy of pointless CGI. I probably will end up watching this movie again one day in a different mood and not despise it. My current opinion is so far outside the mainstream, I feel like I was watching a different film than everyone else. UPDATE: I watched this again. I hated it a bit less than I remembered. But the “Roxanne” sequence wasn’t as good as I remembered it being. So yeah, I still loathe this spastic, unrelentingly stupid film.
Yfke says: This gets the number one spot for me for two reasons. First, I love this film! Great story, great visuals and great music — and never looses its heart. What more can you possibly want? I love how well the modern day songs work within the story. Second, this film put musicals back on the map. People claim that Chicago birthed the new wave of musicals, but that’s not true. It was Moulin Rouge! Without this film, musicals would be dead in the water today. I’ll always love it for giving the musical genre new life.
MTB says: Any Baz Luhrmann film will go too far on some level, but Moulin Rouge! does the best job at unifying Luhrmann’s manic pop-culture vision of cinema. The over-abundant stylistic flourishes match perfectly with the musical theater genre. Luhrmann’s use of pop songs fast-tracks the audience into the emotional layer of the story. Moulin Rouge! feels like a frenetic romantic dream conjured out of our over-saturation of pop culture, but he elevates that into a masterpiece of pop-art.
Lillian says: This movie is probably the movie that my husband and I disagree about more than any other movie. Man, I LOVED this movie when I saw it — I saw it several times in the theater, bought the DVD and watched it several more times. I think the first time I saw it there were moments when I was a little jarred by some of that crazy Baz flair that we’ve all come to know and love, but by the end and surely by the second viewing, I loved it. That owes a LOT to Ewen McGregor, whom I adore and was very excited to watch play the swooning romantic with a tenor voice as supple as butter. I really enjoyed all of the songs, choreography, and HUGE acting. This was definitely a Baz Luhrmann experience — and maybe the only one where it was a right fit. All of that having been said, I probably haven’t seen this movie in 8 years or so, since HUSBAND won’t let me slip it in when he’s around, so it’s also possible that this has changed. Don’t you all think we should watch it together and see if either of our opinions have changed? I sure do.
Premise: In 1939, English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) inherits a far-flung Australian cattle station. She must make friendly with the aboriginal peoples of the area, take charge of the business, solve her husband’s murder and endure Hugh Jackman’s cowboy character’s raw sexuality. Oh, and epic historical war stuff is happening at the same time.
John says: This movie cost a reported $130M and made $50M at the domestic box office, so many people think of it as a failure. It actually made more the $200M worldwide. Even if it hadn’t made a mint, I personally wouldn’t think of it as a failure. It works for me as a big, spectacular epic. While it isn’t in the same league as great screen epics like Gone with the Wind or Nowhere in Africa, it at least does manage greatness in several sequences. (The cattle stampede especially sticks out to me as a great bit of filmmaking.) And it effortlessly evokes the style of the films of the adventure/romances 1930’s and 40’s while telling a story which gives more weight to women and minorities than those films ever did. I think this one’s under-rated.
Yfke says: For once a classic story with Baz that doesn’t feel original — it just feels like many other films we’ve seen before. It was grand and it was epic, but it was also boring and flat. To be honest I couldn’t even remember much of it two seconds after I left the theater.
MTB says: This film is certainly not the failure that many people claim. It’s not Luhrmann’s Heaven’s Gate. Rather, Australia is just an antiquated Hollywood epic romance. Yet, for such a grand gesture, the film is pretty unmemorable and seems to target only the lovers of the fading genre. With the exception of being a bit long, there isn’t much to laud or complain about. The cattle stampede is pretty striking, but in the vast ocean of the film, it feels a bit hollow. A good Sunday afternoon couch film, but hardly the bravura epic it set out to be.
Lillian says: This movie didn’t get great reviews, so, as much as I try to avoid hearing that kind of thing before I see a movie, I went in with low expectations. I totally enjoyed it! That’s about all I remember, but I remember that. There were beautifully epic scenes (you know, like a topless Huge-Ackman) some witty African Queen-esque dialogue and generally good relationship twists and whatnot between our leads. I mean, it was no Moulin Rouge!, but I liked it!
Premise: An adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the Jazz age. Modest bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) finds out the truth about his mysterious millionaire neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).
John says: I went into this thinking that Baz’s tendencies toward excess would ruin one of my favorite stories. But in RealD 3D, at least, the fizz of Gatsby’s wealth matched well with Luhrmann’s carbonated direction. I think he also did okay with the melodramatic aspects of the story. It’s only with the melancholy tenor of the narration (and the silly added device of making Carraway a mental patient who is both talking to a doctor and writing a novel) that Luhrmann drops the ball.
MTB says: Clearly this was being sold to us as the “American Moulin Rouge!” with less singing and more Fitzgerald. Although, I rank this as #2, it falls well below Moulin Rouge! In fact, it falls well below most of Luhrmann’s films, but any watcher of his canon will know that all films have great and terrible moments. This film lacks the high highs of his other films, but also lacks the low lows. DiCaprio has come a long way since his wooden Romeo + Juliet days and really sells his Gatsby. I am not the 3D hater that many are and this incarnation is quite fun to experience. Hardly a great film, but not a bad little time at the theaters.
Lillian says: This movie was a huge disappointment to me. As I was watching it with my husband, all I was thinking was, “Wow, if he didn’t like Moulin Rouge!…” I don’t know what I was expecting, but as my relationship to Baz Luhrmann has grown… This had an awesome trailer, pretty decent source material (sarcastic) — I dunno, I thought I knew him better. This movie WAS Moulin Rouge! only with, like, different actors, and, um, oh yeh, IT WAS THE GREAT GATSBY! Ugh. A few disparate thoughts:
- Completely unnecessary and artificial frame story for two reasons:
- 1) Unnecessary: Why did this story need bookends?
- 2) Artificial: Decide if you want the “I’m talking to my therapist” rationale for VO or the “I’m writing a novel” rationale. No need to do both.
- Tobey Maguire ended every scene with these two expressions: Confusion/dismay transition to knowing smirk + nod.
- Really Baz? Did you have to type the last sentence on the screen? Just so we could all be sure to notice what a good line it was that you didn’t write? I feel like that’s literally 3/4 of the reason I didn’t like it, haha.
I didn’t actually mind Leo D or Carey Mulligan as Gastby and Daisy. They were fine, but not really anything of note. They certainly didn’t bring anything new to the table. I liked the ash heap — that was cool and I don’t remember that from the book (or from the Redford/Farrow/Coppola movie from the ’70s). And I liked the crazy lavish dance parties, although they were a bit overdone at times. That’s all the time I have to spend on this movie.
Yfke says: The visuals and Dicaprio do give this film some worth-watching scenes, making it more memorable then say, well, Australia. When the film started, I was pretty sure I was going to hate it. Yes, the visuals were amazing, but the modern music that usually works so well in a Luhrmann film just fell flat. As did the performances. And the frame story was just plain stupid. But then Dicaprio burst onto screen. He is great as Gatsby, steals every scene and gives the film some much-needed depth. Unfortunately the rest is too long, lacks substance and the voiceover is so redundant and over-explanatory that it’s almost insulting to the viewer. The story, even in this so-so telling, remains a classic, but overall I was disappointed because I thought Luhrman could — and should — have made something a whole lot better.
The Shiaparelli/Prada shorts (2010)
Luhrmann’s role: Director, Co-Screenwriter with Andrew Bolton, Sam Bromell & Schuyler Weiss
John’s rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
Yfke’s rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
MTB’s rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
Premise: A series of short films imagining conversations between fashion legends Elsa Schiaparelli (Judy Davis) and Miuccia Prada (herself).