Baz Luhrmann: The Surrealist, Futurist, Absurdist Director Is Devoted To Fantasy

In a Baz Luhrmann creation, it’s sometimes hard to tell if what you’re watching is good or bad

Today, the first six episodes of the long-awaited series The Get Down were released to Netflix courtesy of the show’s mastermind, the Australian fabulist, opera aficionado, and film director Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann is a controversial figure, the director of films as universally and hornily beloved as Romeo + Juliet and those as universally scorned as Australia. The much embattled production of The Get Down has already earned the whispers of the industry, with collaborators like Stephen Adly Guirgis taking to the press to defend the creative and financial merits of their work on the series. But if there is any constant throughout Luhrmann’s career that can be trusted, it’s that regardless of gossip, much like the Gatsbys and the Zidlers of his own fictional worlds, Luhrmann remains devoted to the truth of his fantasies.

Baz Luhrmann grew up the son of a gas station owner and a ballroom dance teacher, and as a young artist he borrowed from his own life, making the world of ballroom dance the subject of a play he wrote, staged, and performed as a recent art school graduate in Sydney. The play was called Strictly Ballroom, and in 1992, it became the basis of Luhrmann’s first movie. In the film, a dancer dreams of bucking the arbitrary rules of ballroom dance with original steps that are derided as “flashy and crowd-pleasing” by the ballroom elite. Alone he is thwarted, but his eventual partnership with a novice dancer from an immigrant family makes his dream a reality.

Luhrmann’s work would only get bigger over the years — in the case of The Get Down, around $117 million bigger — but what followed Strictly Ballroom built on an already solid frame. Luhrmann’s style was already flamboyant, mashing together genres from mockumentary to silent fantasy and then filtering them through a kind of post–pop art aesthetic. He doesn’t just reference the Coca-Cola logo — he adorns it with sparkles and glitter as if it were an original object. He combines the red, blue, and yellow color palette of a classic Hollywood musical with a pop soundtrack straight from the radio. His characters speak plainly and from the heart, but when they slip into a moment of creative abandon, they become the image of their own fantasies.

Technically, Luhrmann only made one straightforward “... and then they burst into song” musical in his career: the 2001 musical tragedy Moulin Rouge! But even when his characters fail to sing a single note, Luhrmann’s work always has the feel of a musical, slipping as he does so porously between the world of the ordinary and the world of the extraordinary. In Strictly Ballroom, it’s the dances that become Luhrmann’s opportunity for magic. In Romeo + Juliet, it’s the moments of extreme emotion — Romeo spying Juliet through a fish tank, Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss, Romeo walking to Juliet’s casket. The Get Down has been challenged about its exorbitant budget, but Luhrmann’s spending is logical when you think of the fantastic heights he’s attempting to scale. After all, no one skimps when they’re dreaming.

Dreaming is all Luhrmann needs to make a story, and maybe the most fortunate development of his professional life was finding a personal partner who could realize the parts of his vision that seemed impossible. Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, has been the production designer on every one of his films, and the costume designer for every film since Moulin Rouge! Martin is, to put it lightly, a genius. She works with sets and fabric the way Luhrmann works with ideas, fashioning colorful and outlandish pieces with a precision of execution that even Luhrmann himself would find it difficult to manage.

But beyond the limits of Martin’s uncanny gift for transmutation, the practical difficulty of carrying an idea beyond Luhrmann’s mind and into the realm of flesh, blood, shoots, and edits means that it’s sometimes hard to tell if what you’re watching is good or bad. Absorbing the muchness of Baz Luhrmann when you’re used to entertainment that sticks to the surface of reality can be like turning on the lights after a nap that’s been cut short. When things are going well, the camera floats to the moon and the heart follows. But when the balance is off, the entire picture crumbles. The dialogue is too on the nose, the lovesick characters dream too openly, and as a whole Luhrmann’s lack of cynicism is enough to make the natural pessimist reflexively overproduce bitterness. Ever the futurist, Luhrmann made the switch to digital with his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but sometimes I wonder if he would be better off conceding this one element of innovation to the techniques of the past. It’s easier to pick apart the artifice of Luhrmann’s worlds without the unpolished shake of the elaborate camera moves, or without the crackle of grain covering the lace-front wigs. Gatsby feels fake in comparison with Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy — not because it is any less immaculately crafted, but because the moment you see a dream clearly is the moment you wake up.

But unlike (more universally praised) eschewers of reality like David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, Luhrmann isn’t so much surreal as he is supra-real. He floats so far above and beyond the minutiae of everyday interactions that reality passes by like fields seen from a plane. The disconnect between Luhrmann and his detractors is only one of perspective. When you’re standing among the wheat, it’s hard to imagine that the immediacy of waving stalks could become abstract blocks of color and pattern if only you found yourself high enough.