Strictly LuhrmannCritics shoot from the hip and often straight at Baz Luhrmann, but they could not keep his adaptation of The Great Gatsby from succeeding, writes Ed Power
Critics shoot from the hip and often straight at Baz Luhrmann, but they could not keep his adaptation of The Great Gatsby from succeeding
Baz Luhrmann calls them the 'people who shoot from the hip': the cynics and detractors who make their minds up about his movies – assume they will be garish and crass and headache-inducing – before they've even seen daylight. At one level, he doesn't much care what they think – he is an artist, after all, and part of his job is to divide opinion. But he worries their prejudices might infect the wider culture. It weighed on him while shooting his latest film, a lush, foghorn-subtle adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age melodrama The Great Gatsby.
"It was a cause for concern – could I get the public to connect with my movie before the nay-sayers got their message out?" he says with his creamy Australian inflection. "It's happened with all of my films. If you go back and read the reviews – from Strictly Ballroom to Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rogue to Australia. Those who detract from what I do come out with the same opinion almost every time."
Gatsby was no different. Though, with a $105 million budget, the stakes were considerably higher. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic title character, Carey Mulligan as his forbidden love, Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire as narrator and Fitzgerald stand-in Nick Carraway, the film has proved an enormous success, earning close to $150 million at the US box office.
But it has triumphed in the face of ferocious criticism, with Luhrmann (51) variously accused of completely missing the point of Fitzgerald's book – a gilded diatribe against materialism – and dismissed as a cinematic charlatan interested only in sound and fury. He shrugs. His responsibility is to shoot the best movie he can, the one truest to his vision. If he sat around attempting to second guess the cynics and the haters he'd still be back in rural Australia, trying to get his career off the ground.
"I had a lot of trepidation making this one," he nods. "It's like having a baby. All through the process you're fine. And then it's the birth and you think, 'well, what if it goes wrong?' On the weekend the movie opened in America, Forbes printed a story to the effect of, 'whether it's good or bad, Gatsby is going to be a flop'. After it did a $15 million in the first three days, they printed another story – 'an opening weekend surprise'."
Luhrmann is a Mozart of high-kitsch. His films are sumptuous, in the way a dessert trolley wobbling with jellies and tarts is sumptuous. You can't move for all the glazed beauty and yet, for those of a certain sensibility, there is something almost metaphysically off-putting about endless spools of treacle he ladles on.
With regards to Gatsby, this has resulted in a highly divisive 142 minutes of cinema: many have swooned over the elaborate party sequences, with their virtuoso razzle dazzle and acres of gleaming eye-candy. To others, the surface glimmer constitutes a fundamental betrayal of what Gatsby stands for in the first place. A gleefully shallow adaptation of one of the deepest books ever written – come on!
'Enough people have embraced the film so that it is alive – it is a living project," says Luhrmann, who does a good job of coming across as friendly and without ego. "It will go on, no matter that some don't like it or try to bring it down. It will go on.
"I remember on opening night, I was standing in the shadows and this woman approached. She had come all the way from Vermont to see it. She said, 'I love what you've done with my grandfather's book'. It was F Scott's granddaughter. She said that he had been disappointed with the adaptation released while he was alive. She told me I had made it work. Whether or not others agree, that was her opinion."
Believe it or not, Luhrmann conceived of his Gatsby as a tidy, stripped down affair – a study of social mores featuring little more than a whipsmart script and the best actors he could lay his hands on.
"Then Jay Z came on board," he says, half laughing ("Jigga" supervised the soundtrack which controversially includes rap and r 'n' b).
"So... away you go. Then I have the biggest movie star in the world, Leonardo, who obsessively worked on the character for months and months. I just get buried in trying to do my best, I suppose, trying to get the most out of everyone. I always naively think, 'oh well, maybe this time... maybe this time there will be less bickering about the film'."
Luhrmann has divided opinion since his 1992 debut project, Strictly Ballroom. His flashy, MTV-style tilt at Romeo and Juliet was variously hailed as an innovative updating of the Bard and a feat of literary grave robbing; the grandly baroque Moulin Rouge was impossible to have neutral feelings towards – either you loved it... or you really, really didn't.
The exception was Australia, a 2008 epic romance starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman that almost everyone in the English-speaking world judged creaky and overwrought – a conduit for all of Luhrmann's worst tics, without any of his usual cheeky charm. Coming off what was perceived as a flop, did he feel under pressure to score big with Gatsby?
"Australia was a bit of a paradox," he says. "The worst part was the way we landed the film in the States. It absolutely crashed in America. However, it went on to be a phenomenon on Blu-ray there. And it was by far my biggest film in Europe – number one for six weeks in Spain, for instance. I think Gatsby has yet to beat Australia in Europe."
Jay Gatsby is a self-created character who flees small-town drudgery to make himself anew in the big city. Coming from a two-horse hamlet in rural Australia, it seems fair to ask whether Luhrmann – who legally changed his name from Mark Anthony to Baz in high school – recognised parallels in his own life.
"I get that response and it is kind of what I expected," he says. 'Of course, people have also drawn the same parallels [between Gatsby] and Jay Z and Leonardo. I would say that I am a very dramatic example of that little boy in the shack looking out at the bright lights and saying 'I'm going to have a big life'. There is a hint of truth in it.
"At the same time, I feel like I'm Nick Carraway – that I'm the storyteller. And maybe occasionally I'm Daisy Buchanan – shallow and unable to commit. That's the genius of writers – they put part of themselves in all their characters and we see reflections of ourselves there too."
The DVD and Blu-ray edition of The Great Gatsby is out now.