Technically, Baz Luhrmann only did one musical: the 2001 classic Red Mill! But in some ways, every film he’s made feels like a musical, with Broadway, opera, music video and rock concert features reimagined and remixed in varying proportions. With ElvisLuhrmann seems particularly enamored with how these possibilities exist in American pop music history, and few filmmakers are better equipped to portray the wacky, ridiculous heights of the form than Luhrmann.
So here’s a best-of-the-best compilation tape: The Top Ten Musical Moments from Baz Luhrmann’s Filmography to Date.
Let’s start with something simple: this number from the dance musical Ballroom strictly isn’t the flashiest or most exuberant of the film, taking place behind the scenes rather than in front of an audience. Scott (Paul Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice) are about to dissolve their unlikely dance partnership to boost Scott’s chances of winning a championship…until they come together with actions instead of words, dragged each other into a dance like “Maybe” by Doris Day. , Maybe, Maybe” emerges on the soundtrack. Without grand costumes or sets more complicated than a few curtains, Luhrmann relies on the precision of the singing (and, of course, on the chemistry of his actors) to draw us into this partnership. Eventually, Scott and Fran draw a crowd anyway; how could they not?
Radiohead doesn’t necessarily seem like a go-to Luhrmann musical act these days; their music seems too idiosyncratic for his frenetic mash-up style. But by 1996, Radiohead was more of a mid-level alt-rock band than a transmitter of generational album-length statements. In other words, “Exit Music (For a Film)” wasn’t just a clever name; the future Ok Computer the piece was really written for Shakespeare’s modernization by Luhrmann. It is a magnificent disappointment that emerges after an initial silence. (Interestingly, another song originally written for Romeo was “Come What May”, which was not used, but was disqualified from Oscar consideration for Red Mill! because it was originally intended for the previous film.) “Exit Music” is perfect, but the real classic Radiohead moment on screen in Romeo + Juliet is the one involving the B-side’s “Talk Show Host” (which, unlike “Exit Music”, actually appears on the film’s soundtrack – a rare case of a soundtrack prioritizing a song used in the body of the film rather than a credits). The distinctive voice of Thom Yorke is left out; the song’s four-note intro and backing melody loop to mark a scene from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo hiding in a dusty desert, smoking a cigarette, waiting for news from Verona, and holding a newspaper. It’s a brief (and wonderfully emo) moment that has become oddly indelible; almost anyone born between 1979 and 1986 probably associates those opening notes of “Talk Show Host” with DiCaprio smoldering in his loud button-down shirt.
I’m not a fan of Lana Del Rey’s shallow, sleepy pantomimes about boredom, but the vibes, as the kids say, are perfect for her original contribution to Luhrmann’s soundtrack to F. Scott’s classic novel Fitzgerald. Del Rey’s song marks a montage of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) reconnecting with his lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Daisy passing out over Gatsby’s orange juice machine, his bathing suit and, of course, all his cool, gorgeous shirts – all the luxury and flash Gatsby hoped to one day impress Daisy, doing the job the way he imagined. The directness of the song’s lyrics play best in the background, like a lingering question that nags at the dreamy imagery: “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?”
Almost all the musical numbers of Red Mill! might be on this list, but I want to highlight one that might be called an overlook: the scene in which showbiz impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent), his star courtesan/performer Satine (Nicole Kidman), and their band of artists Bohemians must hastily assemble a pitch for their ogled financier, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). With much of it played in the closest setting Luhrmann ever got to a proscenium framing, this is probably the least technical, most traditional, and least augmented musical sequence in the film (I mean, it only has a few cartoon and time-lapse sound effects). action upwards). It’s also a kind of mission statement for Luhrmann’s ideal storytelling aesthetic: a dizzying, breathless attempt to stage the show, stemming from a familiar melody (in this case, the French can-can “Orphée aux hells”) and swirling in a singular vision.
Pop musician biopics often embarrass themselves by emphasizing the global significance of their subject matter. But Baz Luhrmann can’t be embarrassed, so he pushes his biopic Elvis further in grandiosity, repositioning a concert where Elvis Presley is supposed to confirm a new image, less centered on the “bush” and favorable to the family as an act of anti-segregation liberation, risking his career singing black and white fans in a frenzy. Austin Butler’s performance as Presley is never better than when he channels the King’s onstage energy, and this scene lends his gyrations an extra-righteous fervor. Is it explosive excess to mix Elvis singing “Trouble” with a lawmaker’s segregationist rally across town? Maybe! But at least Luhrmann’s Presley exists in a bigger context than his greatest hits.
When Red Mill! was released in 2001, more than one critic complained that Luhrmann refused to let a single song play throughout, a complaint that both successfully misunderstands and outright misrepresents the film he made. After all, is Ewan McGregor’s cover of “Your Song,” starting with stumbling spoken-word poetry before soaring into melody, so aggressively avant-garde? What really sets it apart from other musicals isn’t attention deficit, but how much Luhrmann thinks of terms that are more cinematic than theatrical. In other words, he knows when to leave naturalism behind, allowing McGregor and Nicole Kidman to dance through the sky.
Baz Luhrmann’s films are known for their frenetic editing, but the blistering speed of his cuts belies a keen sense of pacing. Typically, his films go wild in their first half hour and build more sustained (but no less gripping) tension as they go. There’s no better example than “Tango Roxanne,” where Luhrmann reconceptualizes The Police’s hit as a dance number telling a story of jealousy as Christian (Ewan McGregor) struggles with that same emotion about Satine. (Nicole Kidman) and her enforced banter with the hated Duke. The slap and drag of the feet on the floor, the counter-melody McGregor sings as he walks towards Satine’s window and the gravelly intensity of Jacek Koman’s voice are synthesized perfectly with the twirling dancers and faces anguished actors – commanding performances from all angles, in front of the camera and behind it.
Luhrmann unleashes a torrent of his anachronistic pop music throughout Gatsby the magnificent, a fun and effective way to convey the decadence and exuberance of the Roaring Twenties era. But the movie’s most exciting cue is more or less time-appropriate: George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was written around the same time as Fitzgerald’s novel, and it explodes onto the soundtrack just as even where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) realizes he’s talking. with his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio). As fireworks explode in the background, DiCaprio turns and faces the camera and flashes the smile Maguire describes on the soundtrack, raising his champagne glass. Well done, old sport. gatsby technically doesn’t have Red Mill!-style exclamation point in its title, perhaps because after that point the punctuation would just be redundant.
Through Elvis, it looks like Luhrmann is on a mission to show how Elvis Presley informs so much popular culture, including Luhrmann’s mash-up-happy sensibility. He constantly juxtaposes some of Presley’s major influences – gospel music and the R&B juke joint – with split-screens and cross-sections, occasionally mixing in contemporary music tracks, weaving a tapestry of American popular music. In one sequence, the film uses virtuoso editing to chart Presley’s story with its debut single, “That’s All Right,” cutting a performance of “Big Boy” Crudup whom Presley saw as a boy, Presley playing the song in the recording studio and then his cover of the melody for his Vegas show. As the performance transcends time, Luhrmann also transcends biographical clichés on each scene leading to a conveniently encompassing moment, transforming the artifice of a musician biography into joyous delirium.
It doesn’t matter if you like the songs. In many cases, I don’t. “Silly Love Songs” is far from Paul McCartney’s finest hour and I’ve never used “I Will Always Love You” much, whether Dolly Parton or Whitney Houston sings it. Kiss, the original performers of “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” are some of the worst the rock music canon has to offer. Yet this sequence of Red Mill! not combine them all with a grimace of rock of ages-style despair, but a carefree rush of pure pop abandonment – a glorious tribute to the deep depth of feeling that can be inspired even (or especially) by these tracks from the Top 40 firmament. It begins with mad writer Christian ( Ewan McGregor) extolling the virtues of love to his beloved Satine (Nicole Kidman), as she attempts to counter him, both riffing on famous lyrics and pop hit melodies while rising to the top of the Elephant of Satine- in the form of a tower. By the time the medley begins its climactic march through David Bowie’s “Heroes” (and, OK, I love that one), the characters are in love. It’s that simple, that ridiculous, that perfect. More fireworks explode, the drums resound triumphantly and the cursed moon sings. Baz Luhrmann can’t necessarily guess your favorite song, but he seems to intuitively understand what it’s like to hear it.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop culture stuff for a bunch of outlets, including The AV Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Next @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.