Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’99
Following up on my Ramble about the genius of Tim Burton, I wanted to write another post about a director with an equally distinctive style, namely Baz Luhrmann. Over the last month I’ve watched 3 out of 4 of his major hit movies, all of them linked by his trademark fast pace cinematography and hyper energetic story telling.
Luhrmann is best known for the Red Curtain Trilogy AKA Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. All three begin with a red curtain rising, and the rules state that the end of the movie must be given away in the first scenes. On top of this they’re all linked by some unusual form of expression, for Strictly its the dancing, Romeo and Juliet has Shakespeare’s words and Moulin Rouge, of course, has the music.
All three are great movies, but Strictly is slightly overshadowed by the other two, understandable since it was his directorial debut. It’s another one on the list of films I need to see again, but its a genuinely funny film following a slightly obvious but still fun plotline about a national dance competition. Made in 1992, it does show its age a bit when compared to the other films, but while it may not be the best film ever made, if you’re a fan of Baz you’ll definitely like it. (Calling a film made in 1992 old makes me feel ancient…) Like many of his other films, Luhrmann shows his Aussie patriotism and both sets and casts the film in his home country.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how good the other two parts of the trilogy are. Romeo and Juliet is an absolute masterpiece. Every scene of that film has been planned as meticulously as Shakespeare’s play, from the costumes at the ball (Romeo is a knight, while Tybalt is the Devil and Juliet is an Angel) to the overall design, which puts the Montagues in bright Hawaiin shirts while the Capulets (bar Juliet) dress almost exclusively in black and red. It’s one of my all time favourite films, partly because as I’ve said before, I love Romeo and Juliet as a play, but more because I love what Luhrmann has done with it. Keeping Shakespeare’s original text and placing it in a modern setting is brilliant, and the conversion of the scripted swordplay into stylistic gun play is a master stroke. There’s a reason most kids have to study this film for GCSE; each scene is dripping with symbolism, as Luhrmann plays close attention to Shakespeare’s metaphors and combines them with his own to make the film visually stunning. My only minor quarrel is the directorial license at the end, which sees Juliet waking up before Romeo dies, mainly because it’s crueler to the audience than Shakespeare would allow, but we’ll let him off.
On to Moulin Rouge (I’m ignoring the superfluous exclamaton point in the title) another of my top ten movies. My first reaction to this film was, “Oh my God Ewan McGregor can sing!” My second was, rewind and watch again (I’ve since upgraded to DVD). The rescoring of modern music is so perfect you’d think it had been written for the film, especially the epic Show Must Go On. Music is something Luhrmann truly understands, with the score of Romeo and Juliet a perfect backdrop to the action. In Moulin Rouge, it takes centre stage, with some knock-out performances from actors we never knew could sing. The best part of the film, in my opinion, is the first whirlwind ride through the Moulin Rouge. This scene exemplifies everything that makes Baz Luhrmann great, the camera twists and spins to capture the energy of the dance hall and every second is filled with vivid colours and flashes of the underworld (including a mermaid in a fish tank). The music of this scene is also faultless, combining the FatBoy Slim remix Because We Can with Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lady Marmalade, Children of The Revolution and some original music for Jim Broadbent. It’s dizzying and a complete assault on the senses, just as that first experience must have been for the naive Christian.
I could rave about the Red Curtain Trilogy for days, but what about Luhrmann’s latest offering, which steps outside his well known framework? Austrailia may not quite hold up in comparison, but I think it perhaps needs a fairer chance than it’s been given. It’s difficult to follow the two amazing films that have gone before, and perhaps the step away from his established format is what upset some critics, but Austrailia is a beautiful epic, with a realtively simple but still engaging stroyline. The feel of the film is different to the Red Curtain, although there are enough Luhrmann quirks to let you know who directed the film, and the stunning scenery of the Austrailian outback could easily stand up against the words/music/dance that have gone before as the main device for this story. Luhrmann recasts two of his Moulin Rouge stars (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) rounding off the predominantly Aussie cast with Hugh Jackman. Jackman seems to be the Marmite of Hollywood at the moment, but I think he’s good in the role, not that its much of a stretch for him (as he quipped at the Oscars). Luhrmann, like many directors, definitely has favourite actors who turn up repeatedly in his films, with John Leguizamo also making repeat appearances as Tybalt in R+J and Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Austrailia is long, and it does seems to be two films joined together, but it kept my interest and filled a rainy Sunday afternoon pretty well. It might not match the standard of its predecessors, but this is Luhrmann’s first step away from very insular and tightly controlled settings into a historical epic in the real world. It’s not nearly as easy to manipulate, yet he still manages to put his instantly recognisable stamp on it. Again, music is a big part of it, with The Wizard of Oz making a repeat appearance.
Of course the one thing I haven’t mentioned is what exactly I’m on about in the title. If you’re the same generation as me, I doubt it passed you by. If it did, take a look. Sometime after Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann stumbled on the famous speech and remixed it with Everybody’s Free (written for the movie). You may not agree with everything I’ve said, but I hope if you haven’t yet you’ll give Luhrmann a go. But trust me on the sunscreen. 😉