How Baz Luhrmann Wields Music to Reckon with Death

Baz Luhrmann's musical spectacles are lively celebrations as well as moving reflections.

20th Century Fox

Baz Luhrmann has used his films to reckon with performer and performance — the flash of emotion that is eternally suspended within a frame. All of his films elevate performers, often framing their dedication to their act as the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, love and music are so fundamentally intertwined in Luhrmann’s filmography that they blur into synonymy: in Moulin Rouge!, for example, Satine (Nicole Kidman) collapses as soon as the curtain closes, moments after singing of her undying love for Christian (Ewan McGregor). She is kept alive just long enough to perform that final act of love.

Spectacle is the primary language for love in Luhrmann’s world. As Pam Cook argues in the introduction of “Baz Luhrmann”, his technique is one that “draws attention to technological processes rather than naturalizing them in the interests of realism.” Moreso than most contemporary directors, it is obvious that Luhrmann makes film because he loves film. He wields the medium, tracing how it is rooted in his past. He is intrigued by the shape and weight of each cinematic trope and, while most filmmakers flee from filmic symbols and imagery, he runs towards them, threading them through every one of his movies (to varying degrees of success). In Elvis, for example, a crucial conversation about creative independence happens in the literal shadow of the Hollywood sign. Luhrmann deals in myths and fairy tales, stretching out broad stories and layering them in colorful patterns. His films don’t shirk the approaching end; instead, the end is often built into the arc of the story, a predicted trajectory.

Luhrmann’s films balance each tragic beat on a wave of emotion, choosing to surprise the audience with the depth of feeling rather than the imminent outcome. Music has always been the mode by which he most efficiently conveys his hyperbolic style. He uses his broad needle drops to envelop the people that populate his world. On some level, the songs which float through his films — capturing and recapturing a transcendent feeling, holding a moment and inexplicably letting it go — are reminders of the tragedy to come. No sooner have Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) registered one another through distorted glass, for example, before Des’ree has finished her rendition of “I’m Kissing You” and Juliet is dragged to the neon-bathed dance floor. Similarly, only when the troupe have finished their rehearsal of “Come What May” in Moulin Rouge! is the bubble of Satine and Christian’s romance unceremoniously punctured by the Duke’s (Richard Roxburgh) outburst. Ending the performance marks a more fundamental break; it is a reminder that fantasy cannot coexist with life under the shadow of the foretold tragedy.

Elvis boasts a more complicated relationship with music, reckoning with the real man and his complex musical legacy. Adaptation is not new for Luhrmann, who has reshaped the likes of Shakespeare and Fitzgerald into his own discernible patterns, but it is his first attempt at distilling a person’s whole life into a filmic structure. His excessive tendencies are at odds with the accuracy people demand from a biopic, but Luhrmann welds honesty and fantasy together through music. He crafts a landscape that feels like an extension of the film’s tonal reality. Merging Doja Cat with Big Mama Thornton, for example, contextualizes the charisma of this celebrity and offers us insight into the filmmaker’s esoteric vision of Elvis and the era.

Pam Cook surmised that Romeo + Juliet “was no reverential homage; the act of appropriation was clearly marked.” This remains Luhrmann’s ethos in approaching existing material: he repositions real events to reflect the subjective, emotional truth, which is an interesting framework for approaching an artist who so liberally stole and repurposed music from Black artists.

Elvis remains unknowable beneath these broad directorial strokes; he is a person ably absorbing his environment and projecting it on a grander scale. His characterization is further complicated by the fact that some of the featured songs were re-recorded by Austin Butler, constituting another burying of authorship. Truth is hidden beneath layers of interpretation. Luhrmann, who is always collecting references and images to dapple across his filmography in sickly sweet shades, feels the most honest extension of Elvis’ ethos.

Warner Bros. Pictures

“It’s a three-act pop-cultural opera,” Luhrmann explained when discussing Elvis with Maureen Lee Lenker for Entertainment Weekly. Labelling the movie an opera serves as an interesting experiment in thinking about how its music functions. It’s sung through with a series of emotional climaxes strategically scattered. Each new number brings us closer to the inevitable collapse of our protagonist; every girlish scream from the audience is a gust of wind threatening the toppling structure of fame. Indeed, listen to Elvis’ music and you will encounter songs that feel akin to opera: familiar beats with vaguely indiscernible lyrics that carry listeners along on emotional odysseys. Elvis curated a unique vocal range that he punctuates with well-timed soars and growls. As a performer, he balanced independent style with a wider appeal. When he sings, he draws listeners in, guiding them along the rhythms.

Reviewing an Elvis performance from 1957, a reporter described this audience-artist phenomenon: “Elvis had only to say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and the audience would come apart.” His ability to cultivate this relationship speaks to the non-verbal alignment between artists and their followers, a way of communicating that traces the silent cresting and crashing of feeling. When Elvis performs for the first time in Luhrmann’s film, we see how he transports a crowd, transposing untold emotion onto an unsuspecting audience. Once again, Luhrmann artistically untangles the ties that bind Elvis to fame, allowing the emotional logic of his introduction to supplant real events.

Even when there is no musical number, Luhrmann plunges his audiences into an eclectic soundscape, one that follows a cartoonish rhythm. Moments of quiet are chosen carefully, insulating the dizzying motion of all of his films. In Moulin Rouge!, for example, the final chords of “Elephant Love Medley” are ringing out as the camera pans over a Parisian skyline and focuses on a despondent Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), alone and mumbling, “How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world…” Real, potent emotion sits squarely in front of an artificial background; once again, music is used as the meeting ground for real and fake, reminding us that grand declarations of love will eventually be grounded by oncoming tragedy. Luhrmann’s spotless Parisian backdrop will always be haunted by the figure of lonely heartbreak.

In Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic, Elvis has just finished a thrilling performance of “Trouble” when the sound cuts out and headlines detailing the terrifying dedication of the crowd are pasted over slow scenes of their fervor. Worried glances between parent and son are cast across a sea of desperate fans. It is a haunting reminder of what is to come, how pure passion often curdles into devastating isolation. In a clever twist, Luhrmann reminds us that songs are designed to end, that music can’t indefinitely sustain the relationship between dreams and reality. Using the film’s final scene to cut between the real footage of Elvis’ 1977 Rapid City performance and Austin Butler’s onscreen performance isn’t just a way to compound palpable emotion — it is a way for Luhrmann to expose the fault line where what could be and what is collide, meeting in a moment of bittersweet triumph.

In detailing the life of an artist like Elvis, Luhrmann is able to sympathize and demonstrate his own understanding of what it means to love your craft. Songs cannot stretch on forever — they are defined by their containers, as are movies, and as is life. For this filmmaker, love is as powerful as the loss it leaves in its wake.

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