I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 14 years.
Before Mark Anthony Luhrmann’s (AKA Baz) Elvis Presley biopic comes out (starring Tom Hanks as Presley’s manager) sometime in 2022, let’s recap and rank the five films Luhrmann has made since his debut in 1992 with Strictly Ballroom.
Whether you like or hate his movies, after you see a Baz Luhrmann film, you’re not likely to forget them. Your senses are assaulted with a rainbow’s assortment of production design, your eardrums are shattered with a pulsing, almost always popular soundtrack. Even if you don’t know Baz Luhrmann directed a movie and someone tells you afterward, you recollect what you just saw (and felt) and agree that only Baz Luhrmann could direct something so…out there.
Luhrmann’s films rarely get a neutral reaction. You either love them with a passion or abhor them with equal fervor.
1) Moulin Rouge (2001)
This movie should not work as well as it does. This jukebox musical about the (20-year-old spoiler) doomed love affair between a courtesan (Oscar-nominated Nicole Kidman) and a writer in search for love (Ewan McGregor) feels familiar but never falls into any cliché traps. It’s a Moulin Rouge of your fantasies and dreams instead of a historically accurate one. The film plays to the immeasurable power of pop music to make you feel the grandest of emotions on the largest of scales. Nothing in Moulin Rouge is subtle, from Catherine Martin’s (Luhrmann’s wife) Oscar-winning production design to a soundtrack peppered with cross-generational popular music. The first musical (at the time) to be nominated for Best Picture in nearly a decade, Moulin Rouge stays in your heart…come what may.
2) The Great Gatsby (2013)
For a sizeable portion of the movie, Catherine Martin’s production design trumps the narrative. The second half of the movie doesn’t jibe with first as Luhrmann haltingly changes tones at the halfway point. Is it jarring enough to make the audience lose focus? Not really, but it is noticeable. What makes this Luhrmann’s second best film is a (then) career high of a performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Gatsby seems to have leapt off the page to the screen as DiCaprio humanizes Gatsby in a way Robert Redford (from the 1974 version) never could. You hope the memes generated from this movie don’t dilute the power of DiCaprio’s work. Carey Mulligan is perfect and perfectly human as the idealized Daisy. Though he looks noticeably older than the character he’s supposed to be playing, Tobey Maguire settles into Nick Carraway after a couple of scenes. You’ll remember how this movie looks more than how it made you feel, but that doesn’t stop Gatsby from being good, if not great.
3) Strictly Ballroom (1992)
There’s not a beat you can’t predict nor a moment that’s not telegraphed in Baz Luhrmann’s first movie. Ballroom works better than it should as you can see Luhrmann’s enthusiasm in every frame, despite first-time filmmaker hiccups peppered throughout the 90-minute running time. Actors are shot in horrific close-up at times and you’re actually shocked someone used the Ugly Duckling cliché (just take off her glasses, brush her hair) even in the early 90s. What Ballroom does have is strictly heart. You like the movie a lot despite yourself because you want to see the main characters Scott and Fran succeed. Luhrmann would go on to make better movies. Just not his next one.
4) William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1996)
A William Shakespeare mixtape with young stars Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio yelling their dialogue. Well, everyone is yelling their dialogue. You get the Cliffs Notes version of Shakespeare’s story short-circuited for a two-hour runtime. This isn’t a bad movie, just a very uneven one. Danes and DiCaprio show genuine onscreen charisma and star power foretelling both their careers’ upward trajectory. Luhrmann does show visual flair, even at the expense of a coherent story. He would finally merge those into a compelling narrative with his next movie (see #1). Romeo and Juliet has one of the best selling soundtracks of the 90s (I’ll bet you have echoes of “Lovefool” bopping in your head as you read this), so there’s that.
5) Australia (2008)
I think of this movie and I start to yawn. 2 hours and 45 minutes that feels like 45 hours and 2 minutes. Baz Luhrmann’s romantic melodrama is epic only in length and makes you wonder why Luhrmann decided to call the movie Australia, therefore associating an entire continent with such a tedious movie. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman do their movie-star best to keep us interested, but we don’t care what happens to them after hour one. Too bad there’s only six more hours to go. Because of this movie, every time I hear the song “Over the Rainbow,” I start to doze off so I make sure to never listen to showtunes while I’m driving. The only Luhrmann movie that’s truly terrible. Gone With the Wind it tries to be. Gone from our consciousness (if we’re lucky) it ends up.
Because of the pandemic, Baz Luhrmann’s new movie won’t be released until ’22. You’ve got some time to rewatch some of Luhrmann’s five previous movies. With his relatively small filmography, you see a true artist at work. His films are a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart. Except Australia.