Baz Luhrmann’s films contain some of the most imaginative scores in modern cinema history. The Australian auteur is renowned for his unique aesthetic, which, ever since Strictly Ballroom, has embraced bold costume choices, disorienting camera angles, and adventurous music ques. Today, he is regarded as being one of the most individualistic directors working in Hollywood.
Born in Sydney to a ballroom dance teacher and dress shop owner, Luhrmann’scareer began when he was cast in the Australian film Winter of Our Dreams in 1987, the year of his high school graduation. He used the money to form his own theatre company and, in 1983, began an acting course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art.
After leaving the world of theatre behind, Luhrmann quickly established himself as one of the most exciting young directors of the 1990s and, with films like ‘The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, and Strictly Ballroom, he stitched himself into the fabric of popular culture in a way that very few directors have achieved.
Whilst many of the films on this list have been the target of criticism on the basis that they do not stick to the source material, it’s important to recognise that much of Luhrmann’s talent lies in his ability to reimagine stories rather than simply adapt them. One of his most celebrated techniques in this regard is his use of music.
Below, we’ve ranked his films according to the quality of their soundtracks, which, in my opinion, is the only way to judge a Lurhmann film.
Baz Luhrmann’s movie soundtracks ranked in order of greatness:
5. Australia (2008)
Released in 2008, Australia follows the love affair between Lady Sarah Ashley, (Nicole Kidman) an English aristocrat who inherits a cattle station, and the drover (Hugh Jackman) hired to move the cattle across her property. Their romance, however, is overshadowed by social and political conflict ravaging Australia in the 1940s, such as the bombing of Darwin during World War Two.
The score, composed by David David Hirschfelder, is a classic orchestral score, characterised by swelling string sections. Hirschfelder also evokes the big-band area by incorporating several jazz standards into the soundtrack, including: ‘Begin the Beguine, ‘Tuxedo Junction’, and ‘Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)’. Compared to some of Luhrmann’s earlier work, the soundtrack to Australia seems pretty traditional, but it still manages to tug at the heartstrings.
4. Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Luhrmann’s 1992 directorial debut put his name in lights almost overnight. Strictly Ballroom began its life as a stage play that had been written by Luhrmann and fellow students during his studies at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney.
The production went on to be a huge success at the Czechoslovakian Youth Drama Festival in Bratislava in 1986, and, in 1988, it had a successful season at Sydney’s Wharf Theatre. Later that year, Ted Albert, an Australian music executive who had just set a production company, offered Luhrmann the opportunity to transform the play into a feature-length film. Luhrmann agreed under one condition – that he would be allowed to direct it.
Luhrmann’s music choices reflect the director’s earliest use of “camp” for aesthetic purposes. In contrast to Australia, the music serves an action-specific function in Strictly Ballroom, with the most memorable tracks accompanying the dancing scenes. Classical tracks like ‘The Blue Danube’ by Johann Strauss II, are contrasted with gloriously cheesy numbers like Cyndi Lauper‘s ‘Time After Time’ pepper with film, capturing the highs and lows of Scott Hasting’s quest to win the Southern Districts Waratah Championships. It’s no wonder the film was later transformed into a stage musical.
3. The Great Gatsby (2013)
Before Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, Francis Ford Coppola had made a version which, for years, was unmatched in Hollywood. Coppola’s soundtrack was comprised of jazz standards set against a lush orchestral score. Luhrmann, however, decided to use modern music by the likes of Jay Z and Kanye West.
Whilst some argue that Luhrmann’s left-field approach was little more than a cheap gimmick to make the film more accessible, for me, it expertly captures the glamour and excess of 1920s America.
2. Moulin Rouge (2001)
Luhrmann’s 2001 jukebox musical follows the story of Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young writer who falls in love with The Moulin Rouge’s star attraction, Satine (Nicole Kidman). Set against the backdrop of bohemian Paris at the turn of the century, Moulin Rouge, blends cabaret, with cover versions of tracks like T. Rex’s ‘Children Of The Revolution’, David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Sprit’.
The brilliance of the Moulin Rouge soundtrack is that, like the venue’s performers, it wants to be noticed. Half of the joy of listening to tracks like ‘Elephant Love Medley’ comes from spotting its various musical references, which range from Elton John to Whitney Hueston. The soundtrack is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was recorded live, with performers vocal’s being captured in real-time.
1. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Topping the list is Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 romantic tragi-comedy, Romeo + Juliet. Based, of course, on the famous William Shakespeare play, Luhrmann’s film updated the bard’s originals script by shifting the setting from 16th century Verona to modern-day Verona Beach. A high octane, uber-cool and visually stunning masterpiece, with Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann again made expert use of modern music to reinvigorate a dying classic.
Whilst Luhrmann chose to keep all of the original play’s dialogue, he wrapped the complex and unfamiliar speech patterns of Shakespeare’s day in a soundtrack geared towards the MTV generation. The soundtrack is also supplemented by an astonishingly creative original score produced by Nellee Hooper and Craig Armstrong.
Original ques like ‘The Montegue Boys’ perfectly capture the macho bravado of the rival Montagues and Capulets, whilst Luhrmann’s use of The Wannadies’ ‘You and Me Song’ has got to be the most successful evocation of honey-moon period romance cinema history. Overall, Romeo + Juliet is as much a feast for the ears as for the eyes.