Baz Luhrmann’s unique imprint on cinema and period pieces has perplexed film critics and intrigued the general populace alike for decades. They wondered things like “What on Earth is Jay-Z doing in The Great Gatsby? Rap music didn’t even exist in the 1920s.” Or “Why is Benvolio wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Romeo & Juliet?” Each of his films can be characterized and distinguished by their charming modern touch that is inspired by the mood of the moment and undertones of the plot while still staying true to the material. The Australian director walked away from this year’s Academy Awards empty-handed despite his latest picture Elvis receiving upwards of eight nominations. Now I’m an English major and a textbook example history buff. I love Shakespeare and have been to see shows at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC. I love jazz, I love Old Hollywood, I also loved reading The Great Gatsby during English class sophomore year. My favorite actress is Lauren Bacall for crying out loud. I’m exactly the demographic of people who are spitting all over Baz Luhrmann for his signature anachronisms. But upon further viewings of his adaptations of Romeo & Juliet and The Great Gatsby, I realized I was mistaken and there’s something enchanting about his particular storytelling style. Let’s go for a drive down memory lane, shall we?
Film #1: Romeo & Juliet
Just because Shakespeare wrote his plays in the 1500s, and his writing sounds fancy because of early modern English does that really mean it is high-brow literature? From Beatrice and Benedick’s enemies to lovers banter and the entire plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a fairy pulling pranks on everyone, love triangle, etc), Shakespeare is actually so unserious. Even in tragedies, they consist of many dirty jokes that go under the radar simply because they are written in iambic pentameter. And quite frankly, that multidimensional framework is beautiful. So I shall leave you to your gossip-like humor if you think Shakespeare wouldn’t have liked Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of one of the most famous love stories of all time. Because the film really does justice to the coexistence of absurdity and profound reflections of the human spirit. Romeo and his homies wearing Hawaiian shirts, the extravagant costume party, Mercutio driving a convertible with a customized license plate with his name on it, the pool scene, Exit Music (For A Film) playing as the credits roll whilst still keeping to the dialogue; Shakespeare would approve of this passionate mirage. It keeps a perfect blend of modern and classical.
Film #2: The Great Gatsby
Would it be a Baz Luhrmann film if there wasn’t some huge party where some major inciting incident takes place? Jay Gatsby’s weekly parties brought to the screen gave us the theme parties of our dreams. It’s less so that modern music in a 1920s film eclipses jazz, and music of the 1920s, but rather it paints a mood so present-day audiences can feel a connection to the storyline. No Church In The Wild showcases the economic side of the Roaring 20s and Wall Street being an absolute frenzy. Baz Luhrmann is essentially telling the audience, “Picture all the frat bros yelling over loud music at a party to tell you about the stock market” and you get what being in New York City during the 1920s was like. Similarly, with the first Gatsby bash, Nick is invited to. The EDM, fireworks, and sparkles showcase the extravagance of the new money rich and how Gatsby wants to show off how he worked his way up to the upper echelons of society from growing up as a poor farm boy in North Dakota to impress Daisy.
Film #3: Elvis
There’s a reason why audiences fell in love with Elvis Presley all over again last summer. With the Priscilla movie out showing a more sinister image of the King, it feels like a lifetime ago doesn’t it? Although I don’t think this film really romanticizes him either. It’s funny to see the memes of Austin Butler admitting he didn’t see his family for 3 years, whilst Jacob Elordi’s intro to the man was Lilo and Stitch does showcase to study for the role, but it does show his descent into madness. With Elvis, the costuming does not disappoint as usual. And fashion above all else, is really what helps a period piece feel like a period piece because it is visual. Baz picks and chooses which period-accurate element to integrate and emphasize throughout his films. If Romeo & Juliet is dialogue, The Great Gatsby is music, Elvis is the culmination of this holy trinity with a Doja Cat song sampling Big Mama Thornton as a bonus track.