Why Baz Luhrmann gets criticised more than his movies

He is one of our most successful cultural exports, so why do Australians love to trash Baz Luhrmann so much?

And it’s not the exclusive domain of film critics either, though on that front the filmmaker told the Herald’s Garry Maddox last week: “What happens if I ever get a film where all these critics love it? It’ll probably be a dog.”

Baz Luhrmann in Sydney.Credit:Steven Siewert

In 2016 The Guardian wrote of Luhrmann’s work as being like “having a crater-sized parcel of glitter dropped on your head.” And after rewatching Australia, its critic described the film as “a bulky, berserk bush turkey lathered with stereotypes.”

Luhrmann’s chorus of detractors goes well beyond the film industry.

Read any of the comments sections underneath online articles about Lurhmann in the last few days, and inevitably they are dominated by naysayers, sneering about everything from why Luhrmann manages to secure millions of dollars in funding to bring his creations to life to his physical appearance.

Director Baz Luhrmann at the London premier of Elvis in May.Credit:AP

Right now, Luhrmann is at “peak Baz” as he launches his latest extravaganza, Elvis, the big-budget cradle-to-grave epic biopic devoted to one of the 20th Century’s most enduring celebrities.

And just like Elvis, Luhrmann himself is a showman, thrusting himself into the centre of the Elvis marketing machine.

We’ve seen him swanning about, from the Met Gala Ball in New York to the Cannes Film Festival, from where he has regularly reminded us that Elvis received a 12-minute standing ovation.

He’s also guest-edited the latest Vogue Australia.

He first guest-edited the fashion magazine decades ago. Reflecting on that outing recently, Luhrmann somewhat immodestly recalled how he took a “relatively unknown” Nicole Kidman back in 1994 and made her a Vogue star.

Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.Credit:Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros

Relatively unknown? She’d already starred in her breakthrough role in Dead Calm, been nominated for a Golden Globe and married the most famous man in Hollywood, Tom Cruise, by that point. Minor details?

Last Sunday I watched as Luhrmann posed for fan selfies outside the State Theatre. He clearly enjoys the recognition … when it’s favourable.

While he wasn’t actually in the film, it was pretty clear last weekend that Baz Luhrmann is undoubtedly the biggest star of Elvis. Just as he has been ever since Strictly Ballroom. He has also continued to be one of the greatest supporters of the film industry in this country, choosing to make the majority of his films here, supporting countless creatives along the way.

Of course, by his side through all of this is his wife and co-conspirator Catherine Martin, the costume, production and set designer who is responsible for so much of the output Luhrmann is celebrated for around the world.

Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin at the 2014 Helpmann Awards.Credit:Mark Metcalfe

And yet, it was Martin who won four Oscars for her work on Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, while Baz has none.

I once asked him about that, and while he was obviously proud of his wife’s extraordinary achievements, it was pretty clear that such accolades would not be unwelcome on Luhrmann’s own trophy shelf.

As for Elvis, I can report the film, which is released on June 23, is every bit as visually lush, decadent, and at times jarring, as any of Luhrmann’s other films.

But with every low point in Elvis (the all too literal retelling of his story gets a little clunky, while Tom Hank’s portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker didn’t reach its full, villainous potential), Luhrmann provides twice as many high ones, not in the least the ingenious recreations of Elvis’ concerts, performed so brilliantly by Austin Butler.

The scenes of a young Elvis discovering black music in an evangelist tent were a visceral experience to behold.

Personally, I prefer a film like Elvis over yet another mega-budget, mega-bloated special effects extravaganza Marvel superhero film. And yet, instead of commending Luhrmann for going down his own creative path and doing something different, audiences and critics, in particular Australian ones, seem preoccupied with finding flaws they seemingly overlook in the likes of Thor.

The harshest of Elvis film critics have described it as everything from “utterly deranged” to “toweringly noisy”.

And each of them specifically single out Luhrmann for their criticism, much more so than probably any other Australian director of note.

Perhaps Luhrmann’s seemingly robust ego is to blame? He is no doubt among the tallest of our poppies.

His constant showmanship and ability to talk up his own projects with such profound confidence is something that sets him apart from contemporaries like George Miller, Phillip Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, PJ Hogan or Fred Schepisi. It is a trait that is perhaps a little un-Australian.

And as a result, it is Luhrmann himself who cops the greatest criticism, rather than the films he directs.

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