Baz Luhrmann is sporting a silver-topped hairstyle these days, looking every bit the part of the unconventional artist. Five years since he reinterpreted Shakespeare for the youth market with his often brazen take on Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann is back, defying convention and determined to reinvent a different kind of cinematic wheel this time around, this time the movie musical.
With his third Red Curtain film, the irreverent filmmaker says that now is the perfect time for him to turn musical cinema on its side. “I feel like I’ve been gearing for this my entire life”, the energetic director explains in his LA hotel suite. “As a kid I loved musicals and that idea that you saw an artificial film that made you FEEL, the fact that all of the audience was involved in the story. To a certain extent, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet ARE musicals, so we’ve just taken a final leap, really, towards a breakout in songs in movie in the use of musicals to tell a story.” Of course, having said that, Luhrmann goes on to explain his further drive to make a third of his ‘red curtain’ films was not only based on him wanting to a musical, but as he sees it, a story ‘Orphean’ in shape. “That meant going into an underworld, growing through experience, coming into that point in your life where you realise that some relationships can’t be defined and not being destroyed by that, growing from that”.
Much like Luhrmann himself who clearly identifies with the journey of Christian (played by Ewan McGregor), the initially innocent, idealistic and virginal poet who grows and matures through experience. Luhrmann’ s first film, Strictly Ballroom, had a certain naivety within it, which is in direct contrast to Moulin, a much darker and mature work. The parallels between his own journey and that of Christian don’t escape the director. “Paradoxically, they all require a naivety of structure and primariness in their underlying storytelling, but the resonating execution of it is more complicated. Strictly Ballroom is the absolutely joyous myth of overcoming oppression, the second piece is absolutely about tragedy”.
For Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann says he wanted the best of both worlds, “that of comic tragedy. So that you get both joy and sadness, breaking out with song and dance”. Luhrmann adds that Moulin, more than its predecessors, defines who he is as an artist, “but then Strictly Ballroom defined who I was then”. But as with Ballroom, Moulin continues Luhrmann’ s cinematic tradition of exploring artifice in film and the relationship between screen and audience. Asked if he hopes to continue on that path, and the director pauses. “The language of what I’ll explore next on film is dependant at this point, of what I NEED to make, not what I want to make. I mean I’d love to make an action picture, but what I NEED to make is that which is going to enrich life”.
In the meantime, that film is the audacious Moulin Rouge. The film is set in the famous Paris cabaret in 1899-1900 with Nicole Kidman as an entertainer and courtesan torn between her love for the impoverished writer played by Ewan McGregor and her lust for the riches offered by an obsessed fan played by Richard Roxburgh. In the movie, Kidman, McGregor and others, including Jim Broadbent and John Leguizamo, sing a range of 20th century tunes, including Madonna’s Like A Virgin and Material Girl, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Your Song, Kurt Cobain’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, a clutch of Beatles songs in a love medley, and even “the hills are alive” excerpts from The Sound Of Music. Luhrmann says the songs were not chosen to shock or titillate. “It was not about, wouldn’t it be groovy or wouldn’t it be fun.” Each song helped him move the story forward, Luhrmann said. The actors sang their emotions on screen, and “it was important that the actors did their own singing”.
The film was strenuously shot on location at Sydney’s new Fox Studios “which was a very important part of my deal to make the film”, and is happy to heap praise on Kidman, who emerges as a truer movie star from her first entrance. “Her opening is supposed to resemble bits of Marlene, Marilyn, and those kinds of stars, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Nicole embodies classic movie stardom”.
As exhausted as he is, Luhrmann will busily promote his film and hopes “that audiences will embrace it”. We might live in very cynical times, a concept Mr Luhrmann finds depressing. “Yes, we do live in cynical times, and you know what? Ya die, and guess what? What kind of life is it that you get a little gift of life and you spend three-quarters of it being bitter and cynical? THAT isn’t living. It’s fucking sad and I really mean that in a profound way, because I don’t want to buy into that”.
Which is why Luhrmann hopes Moulin Rouge reaches across to the cynical. “I hope that this film will pull the rug from underneath their mechanism for protection. The non-cynical have already found a way and they understand that you open yourself to feeling as we tell the same stories time and time again”. Of course, nobody can tell stories quite like Baz Luhrmann, and Moulin Rouge, he hopes, will challenge audience through music, as they have never been challenged before.