Baz Luhrmann Sounds Off on Elvis, Moulin Rouge!
A look back on V’s “Director’s Cut” series recalls his small-town past and larger-than-life oeuvre. Nominated by Nicole Kidman.
This article was originally published on September 2, 2019
Is there life on Mars? a young Baz Luhrmann might’ve wondered growing up in rural Australia, where the night sky and the nearest urban hub would’ve seemed equidistant, the isolated continent’s sprawl exacerbating feelings of small-town seclusion. “I say ‘seven’ and people think I mean 7,000,” he says. “But what I mean is that I grew up in a town of seven houses—two of which didn’t have anyone [living] in them.” First triggered by the alien stylings of David Bowie, Luhrmann’s nascent imagination—now one of Hollywood’s most prodigious and enduring—made up for the shortcomings of his earthly plane.
From his youthful foray in a garage-punk band (“I had every hairdo imaginable; eyeliner, green hair, yellow hair, shaved head”) to his debut feature, 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann’s career can be viewed as a refutation of his threadbare beginnings. “What I do now [is what] I have always [done]. It’s all I have ever known. It’s just a part of being isolated: You have to make stuff,” Luhrmann says. “I was always running around, busily telling stories or putting on magic shows.”
Now, Luhrmann makes magic just as busily, although with a richly social existence. Long-term relationships are a hallmark of his filmography: Wife Catherine Martin is his tied-at-the-hip costume designer, while writer Craig Pearce both co-fronted the aforementioned punk outfit and co-wrote Ballroom, as well as all but one of Luhrmann’s features since. Then there’s Nicole Kidman, whom he’s counted as more than a muse since directing her in Moulin Rouge!, followed by their Chanel No. 5 campaign. “[Before] Chanel No. 5, there was no [such thing] as a fashion film; [people] looked down their nose at the idea,” he says. “Nicole and I have an abiding friendship, [and have weathered] traumatic experiences [together]. I can’t express how deeply I feel about her.”
Meanwhile, the reverberations of Kidman and Luhrmann’s splashy, can-can spectacular are still being felt; a few miles uptown, a small army is gearing up for the second or third performance of the Broadway adaptation of Moulin Rouge!, in previews at the time of our call. That alone would be grounds for peak stress levels, not to mention Luhrmann’s forthcoming Elvis biopic. But Luhrmann is accustomed to high-wire juggling acts. Dialing in from his recently opened creative space at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, he’s in decompression mode, receiving a house call by his acupuncturist. “I’d been [considering] surgery for [chronic] headaches,” he reports, mid-poke. “Until I met this wonderful Chinese doctor—he went click and instantly stopped the headaches.”
This fall brings the official album for Moulin Rouge! on Broadway, less a cast recording than a self-contained event. Unlike the musical, which Luhrmann largely left to the devices of director Alex Timbers, the album will have Lurhmann’s artistic stamp. “I’m a producer on this album. People don’t know that my great love is actually getting in and making music,” he says. Bringing together the likes of Sia, Beyoncé and Lorde, the record harks back to the collaborative powerhouse of the 2001 soundtrack. “I was deeply involved in bringing [that] together,” Luhrmann says, referring to the quintet behind breakout single “Lady Marmalade,” P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Mýa, Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott. “[But] I’m forever grateful that greats like Elton John, Paul McCartney and David Bowie personally allowed their music to be used because it was the antithesis of publishing [norms] at the time. If they hadn’t, the film would never have been made.”
The surest throughline in Luhrmann’s ritzy oeuvre is his risk-taking—often picking up some heatless IP, from literary canon fodder to heirloom perfume, and drop-kicking it into the stratosphere. “I believe in taking something so overused that we’ve forgotten its inner power, then shaking it off for a new time and place,” he says. He’s deploying that tack when it comes to Elvis, who famously died of overuse: “Rather than a ‘biopic,’ [I see it] as a canvas,” he says. “It’s hugely ambitious, but I want to [cover] his whole life, many aspects of which will be truly surprising.” When it comes to the element of surprise, Luhrmann is the king.
The Moulin Rouge! The Musical official cast recording is out now.