What do you get if you cross an Australian ballroom dancing teacher with the owner of a little cinema? Genetically speaking, the answer comes in the flamboyant shape of Baz Luhrmann, the music-loving director of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, who learned to tango with his mother and watched films on the screen his father owned in the tiny town of Herons Creek.
Born Mark Anthony Luhrmann in Sydney in 1962, he is already the creator of a handful of exuberant popular hits, and is now telling the story of Elvis Presley, one of the most vivid – not to say lurid – of all real-life narratives. His biopic, Elvis, which stars 30-year-old Austin Butler in the lead role and Tom Hanks as the singer’s calculating manager, Colonel Tom Parker, has its world premiere on 25 May at the Cannes film festival.
A lengthy crescendo of public interest followed the birth of the project eight years ago, with original candidates for the title role reportedly including Harry Styles. Anticipation levels rose further early in 2020 when filming in Australia was interrupted because Covid struck Hanks. And excitement was stoked once again early this month when the film won the public approval of Presley’s widow.
Luhrmann, looking brightly tanned at New York’s Met Gala, posed on the red carpet with Priscilla Presley, who later tweeted after a private screening of Elvis: “I relived every moment in this film. It took me a few days to overcome the emotions. Beautifully done Baz.”
Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, also loved it, Priscilla revealed, adding that she was sure his granddaughter, actor Riley Keough, would feel the same.
The film should spark some stellar Hollywood voltage on the fabled Croisette this festival, as Cannes shakes off its pandemic gloom. And the premiere of Elvis, though not in competition for the Palme d’Or, will mark a key moment in a festival where big-screen appreciations of rock heroes are prominent.
On Sunday 22 May, Ethan Coen, one half of the famous film-making brothers, makes his solo film debut with a documentary about another American rock titan, Jerry Lee Lewis. His film, Trouble in Mind, charts the unruly career of the musician they called “Killer”. On Monday 23 May, a David Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream, made by Brett Morgen, also has a world premiere. Its American director, who has already made Montage of Heck about Kurt Cobain, spent four years compiling hours of unseen Bowie footage for this “experiential cinematic odyssey”.
Music documentaries took hold of the film industry after the 2012 success of Searching for Sugarman. Last year’s Summer of Soul met with acclaim, and there was a joyful response to Edgar Wright’s Sparks brothers film. This festival, the annual Cannes Classics line-up will honour Martin Scorsese’s admired masterpiece of the genre, his 1978 documentary about the Band, The Last Waltz.
A parallel boom in rock biopics has seen portrayals of Freddie Mercury, Hank Williams, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Morrissey all whizzing off the production line. But Luhrmann promises something bolder and more colourful. As a director tackling probably the most significant events in commercial pop history, he knew he “couldn’t make this film if the casting wasn’t absolutely right”.
“We searched thoroughly for an actor with the ability to evoke the singular natural movement and vocal qualities of this peerless star, but also the inner vulnerability,” he has said.
Luhrmann, by the way, also set himself the tricky task of finding a convincing BB King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard for the Elvis cast. But then music is in the bones of this son of the ballroom-dancing dress shop owner Barbara and her late husband, Leonard Luhrmann, a Vietnam vet who ran a farm and a petrol station (as well as a cinema).
Their boy loved music and dancing and, as an adult, has earned Grammy nominations for his film soundtracks, as well as some acclaim as an opera director. In the early 90s, his Australian production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream won the Critic’s Prize at the Edinburgh festival, and in 2002 he brought Puccini’s La Bohème to Broadway, where it received seven Tony nominations.
Coupled with his love of high fashion, Luhrmann’s passion for music has fed lavish advertising campaigns for Chanel, as well as promotional films celebrating designers Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli.
“I’ve always been spread too thin,” Luhrmann has admitted. Yet there is another string to his bow that only viewers of the Australian TV drama A Country Practice in the 1980s may recall. Luhrmann started out as an actor, graduating from Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1985. Even before then, at 18, he had played small roles in a few episodes of the daytime soap.
By then he was already “Baz”, not “Mark”. He had initially been nicknamed by bullies at school in a reference to Basil Brush, the British children’s TV puppet character. “I had this crazy curly hair, this big ’fro, and at school all these boys used to beat the shit out of me,” the director has recalled. With impressive teenage bravado he responded by changing his name by deed poll to Bazmark, linking the taunt for ever to his birth name and effectively launching a creative brand on the world.
When fame came it came fast and suddenly, at 30, with the release of Strictly Ballroom, the first of Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy” of films. What started as a short theatre piece at drama school became a quirky cult cinematic hit, later changing mainstream TV entertainment by inspiring the BBC to revamp its defunct ballroom show as Strictly Come Dancing.
For Luhrmann, the film “was the first step in that sort of 10-year journey to make musical cinematic language”. Next came his vibrant vision of Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Critics tend to point to this one as his true masterpiece, and certainly the director is still a little in love with it.
Recently he described it as “the most romantic film-making experience I’ve ever had”, adding: “Someone should make a film about us making that film. Can you imagine? Leo DiCaprio was 19, we’re all living in Mexico, there are helicopters and explosions and we’re doing iambic pentameter!”
A year after it came out, Luhrmann married the production designer, Catherine Martin, who has now won four Oscars on his films. The couple have two children and have spoken of maintaining an unconventional domestic set-up, living separately during the week and meeting in hotels at the weekend.
In 2001, Luhrmann came into full popular focus when he gave cinema audiences Jim Broadbent singing Madonna’s Like a Virgin in Moulin Rouge!. It starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, and so far has won him the most accolades, including eight Oscar nominations. The last of his Red Curtain trio, he sees it as rooted in the expressive grandeur of 1940s Hollywood: “It’s a heightened theatrical cinematic language, which I like to think of as a big lie that reveals a big truth.”
From then on, the critical reception of Luhrmann’s work has proved less reliable. He keeps a little notebook of ideas for projects but recent choices have not flown so high. His 2008 historical saga, Australia, once again starring Kidman but this time alongside their compatriot Hugh Jackman, did well in Europe, but the critics did not rave. His most recent film, a 3D version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the glamorous anti-hero, was also disliked by many reviewers. It did, however, bring in three times its estimated budget of $105m at the box office. Last year, The Get Down, his expensive Netflix series on the origins of hip-hop in the 1970s, was culled after a single season.
With Luhrmann it is all or nothing, it seems. And it is a creative philosophy he appears to extend to his audiences. In defence of the full-on style of the startling opening scenes of Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann has argued that a slow, naturalistic approach would have been lame: “While you’re chatting and eating your popcorn, you’re just getting a bunch of facts and figures so the film can start. In our film, we’re demanding that you say, ‘Are you in or are you out?’” Next week will reveal which way the Cannes audience for Elvis has opted.