Baz Luhrmann’s debut film, Strictly Ballroom, is an idyllic text to demonstrate the ostentatiousness that characterises the Australian filmmaker’s filmography which now consists of the likes of Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, Australia and The Great Gatsby. Released back in 1992 and over 20 years before Luhrmann’s latest feature, the film is a fascinating one to explore to discover how far Luhrmann has become as a director, producer and screenwriter with ingenious vision.
The film begins in a compelling documentary-style with humour, leaving us deserted within the intangible world of ballroom dancing. The melodramatic performances and the characterial aesthetics ensure to build this theatrical world that we see later from Luhrmann, particularly in Moulin Rouge!. In contrast to the latter however, Strictly Ballroom seems to have more of a satirical view of the ballroom dancing industry and potentially could even be extended to a criticism of the film industry itself; a curious tactic considering Luhrmann’s attempt to try and enter the film industry with this debut through a potential criticism of it. When Liz wishes a new idyllic partner, within moments, the dancer that she wishes for comes along, and I can’t help but think this is Luhrmann’s way of poking fun at the cliché narratives of 90s film at the time.
Despite this, this first part to what was later referred to as The Red Curtain Trilogy (which was followed by Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) is later disappointingly saturated with these clichés which I hoped Luhrmann was excoriating initially. From the conventional geek-to-chic transformation to the twist at the ending that resulted in a content one nonetheless, the film seemed to indulge in exactly what it began to fight against. There was so much performance in the film that Luhrmann began to lose exactly what was reality and what was acted; it was all a show.
Luckily, the later gems of Luhrmann’s filmography presents a transformation in the director’s filmmaking, with them beholding just the right ratio of an emotive narrative with the performative nature of life that Luhrmann explores in his work. In Moulin Rouge!, the enigmatic and tragic character of Satine and her relationship with Christian made a firm foundation to the flamboyancy that indicates a Luhrmann film. Also with The Great Gatsby and Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann ensured to explore complex characterisations synchronously with his recognisable aesthetics, demonstrating Luhrmann’s new-found ability to not sacrifice the substance of his texts for their style. Whereas Strictly Ballroom seemed to survive with one wing, floating through a narrative with no base that purely relied on gaudy visuals and acting.
In The Red Curtain Trilogy, Luhrmann constructs caricature-like characters through a wild camera lens with tame montage editing that thrusts the audience in expeditious scenes. Here, Luhrmann breaks from the conventional Hollywood narrative, and reaches a different kind of explorative filmmaking showing that just like Scott Hastings, Luhrmann dances his own steps in a strict industry. Although more subdued and gentle in The Great Gatsby, this kind of filmmaking has been seized by Luhrmann from his debut to his most recent film, cultivating his auteur status so that we know precisely when we are watching a Luhrmann film.
Whenever watching one of these, it is almost impossible to not notice each individual process of filmmaking that he puts in the spotlight. From editing to lighting, to sound to costume, Luhrmann is almost whispering in our ear a constant reminder that this is a film. Aside from Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann has learnt an extremely originative skill by taking this performance-led, self-aware type of film and integrating a complex set of characters, creating an alluring blend. This debut showcases many of Luhrmann’s individualistic techniques, but he has taken this debut and shaped its successors through the clear realisation of the absent character that was missing in Strictly Ballroom.
Luhrmann’s films, however, have only ever won Oscars such as Best Costume Design and Best Achievement in Production Design, never acknowledging the substance behind the dazzling mask. Thus, whether there is authentically anything behind Luhrmann’s visual work is an ongoing debate. Perhaps, the performative aspects of the films themselves are the symbolic, implicit exploration of the personal. But, personally, tracking back from Strictly Ballroom to The Great Gatsby, one can see a change where Luhrmann has kept his recherché filmmaking recognisable, but matured it to a level that collides all parts of filmmaking to one united text.
Strictly Ballroom (1992), directed by Baz Luhrmann, is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK by 20th Century Fox, Certificate PG.