Baz Luhrmann is a filmmaker of excess. Whether he is reproducing Shakespeare in his image, capturing the sweeping beauty of the Australian countryside, or retelling one of the totems of American literary fiction, Luhrmann consistently cranks the dial to eleven. His films are productions, in the grandest sense. Huge, colorful, fantastic, and, when they are at their best, incredibly alive. His filmography is littered with big swings and, admittedly, some big misses. What you will never find, though, is something boring and uninspired, which not every filmmaker can rightly say.
Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann was born in Sydney, Australia in 1962 to parents Barbara, a ballroom dance instructor, and Leonard, a movie theater operator. These two influences go a long way to explaining much of luhrmann’s aesthetic, one that blends the grandeur of dance and movement with the history of film. Much of Luhrmann’s oeuvre has been distinguished by his auterist leanings. Throughout his career Luhrmann has consistently been the driving force behind every artistic decision in his films, directing, producing and writing nearly every one of his movies. And it’s hard to argue with the results, as Luhrmann has been able to create a filmography wholly unique in the 21st century.
We ranked his six movies, from worst to best.
6. Australia (2011)
Australia is a movie that sounds like it should work pretty well. Two extremely attractive people (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman) getting together in a breathtaking location to film an epic story of love and war is not exactly a novel idea but it’s one that has worked time and again. The love story in question surrounds our two leads, Jackman as a rough-and-tumble ranch hand and Kidman as the well-to-do aristocrat far from her comfortable element. To absolutely no one’s surprise, they make it work, despite any differences that may arise. The issue with this particular epic is not necessarily the trite story points throughout, but in the somewhat perplexing attempt to have the film mean something more than your typical vapid love story. A major plotline surrounds Jackman’s character’s de facto adoption of a young Aboriginal boy named Nullah. It’s here where Australia seems to want to have something to say about the racial history of its titular nation, though what and how they say it becomes cluttered at best, misinformed and infantilizing at worst. It’s not an unwatchable movie, to be sure, but at 165 minutes, it can be a slog not quite worth the effort.
5. Elvis (2022)
Elvis is Luhrmann’s first feature since 2013’s The Great Gatsby, but if you think that nearly decade-long hiatus might have slowed down the Australian auteur, you have another thing coming. Elvis is a biopic in the literal sense, but this film is more fairytale than biography, erring toward the flashier, ostentatious sides of the Elvis legacy — diamond studded suits, sideburns, gyrations — rather than delve too deeply into what made Elvis Aaron Presley from Tupelo, Mississippi into Elvis the icon. Relative newcomer Austin Butler does fantastic in a part that lands somewhere between difficult and thankless while his counterpart, Tom Hanks, playing the garishly evil Colonel Tom Parker, matches him as skillfully as you come to expect from the veteran performer. As with many of Luhrmann’s movies, both the most successful and those less so, Elvis is overflowing with ideas. The only negative, though, is how so many of those ideas remain surface-level examinations, rather than deep explorations of character, leaving the viewer impressed if a little cold.
4. Strictly Ballroom (1993)
Strictly Ballroom marks Luhrmann’s debut movie based on a play of the same that he produced and staged during his time at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney. Strictly Ballroom tells the story of Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a ballroom dancer from a family of ballroom dancers whose goal is to one day win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. Here’s the catch; Scott does not play by the rules. Yes, that’s right, he is the bad boy of ballroom dancing. His crowd-pleasing moves, flashy and improvised, might look good but they are not “strictly ballroom” (cue Leonardo DiCaprio meme) and so he is continuously dismissed and looked down upon by the establishment. This kind of narrative turn is a trope, sure, but it works and mostly serves to allow Luhrmann to capture Mercurio in all his rebellious glory. It’s here we see Luhrmann’s unique ability to capture movement and pageantry for the first time, and it is pretty thrilling to watch. Ultimately, Strictly Ballroom is a sports movie, with all the twists and turns, betrayals and triumphs you might expect, but it’s also one hell of a debut, one that sets Luhrmann up for the rest of his career.
3. The Great Gatsby (2013)
The Great Gatsby is a huge undertaking for many reasons. The first being its place in American culture. Perhaps no book represents the idea of “the great American novel” quite like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 tale of class, love, and luxury in the Jazz age. Perhaps because of this, there have been no less than three attempts to bring the story to the big screen prior to Luhrmann’s, each with their own merits and flaws. In this version we have Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, our narrator, playing opposite Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular Jay Gatsby. This excellently chosen cast is perhaps the movie’s greatest strength, as each are able to portray much of what make their characters so fascinating on the page. You can see, also, why Luhrmann was so excited to direct the story of Gatsby and company. Who better to display the opulance of the roaring twenties than a director so well-versed in creating a near-constant party atmosphere? To capture the debauchery, Luhrmann makes the intriguing decision to blend period-specific music with current pop music, featuring the likes of Beyonce and Lana Del Ray. As always, Luhrmann’s directing can be almost dizzying but here it does a good job of capturing the mood of the novel.
2. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Romeo + Juliet was an absolute smash hit, by any measure. With a budget of just under $15 million it made nearly $150 million in the box office alone, marking Luhrmann as a very big deal. What that seemingly meager budget does not properly capture is how massive this movie is in pretty much every way. For one, they absolutely nailed the casting, in a way very few movies ever really have. Casting Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio at this point in their careers is an astounding feat and one that can very much be linked to that huge box office number. Heartthrob really doesn’t do justice to just how attractive DiCaprio is in this movie. Coming just a year before Titanic would make him the biggest star in the world, this movie truly set the stage for the massive fanbase he would soon cultivate. Even aside from its star power, Romeo + Juliet has a lot going on, from its adherence to Shakespearian language, to the Hawaiin shirts donned by Romeo and the rest of the Montagues, to the frenzied pace and eye-popping color palette, this is truly a feast for the senses. There are aspects of this that might push Romeo + Juliet toward too much but when you are repurposing what is perhaps the most frequently told story in the Western world, we think it’s okay to take as many liberties as you wish.
1. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Moulin Rouge! is the best of Luhrmann in every way. This is the film he was meant to make. The collection of music, dancing, broad acting, color, costume, and, more than anything — fun — is Luhrmann’s absolute peak. Moulin Rouge! is a jukebox musical drama, meaning the music within the film is not original but culled from popular music, in this case mostly from the 1980s and ‘90s, and repurposes them for the movie’s narrative. The story in question centers on a young writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) sharing with us the story of his lost love, Satine (Nicole Kidman). Christian and Satine meet under inauspicious circumstances and must keep their love secret. Which, of course, just makes it all the more sexy. Together, along with the help of a bohemian theater troupe, Christian and Satine write and produce a play titled Spectacular Spectacular. This, too, could be the title of the film, once again highlighting Luhrmann’s distinct ability to create a world wholly devoid of realism, embracing color and majesty above all else. The songs, too, favor excess over everything else, stopping, starting, and blending together at a breakneck pace. The story may be familiar and there will not be a ton you don’t see coming, but you will be plenty distracted throughout.