Baz Luhrmann’s version of “The Great Gatsby” will no doubt raise a few eyebrows with some scenes of such over-the-top extravagance that even its hero, an obsessed social climber desperate to show off his wealth, might think Luhrmann went too far.
But that’s nothing new for the Australian director, who throughout his career has been enamored with excess and thrills and extravagant artifice. So yes, the first party scene in “Gatsby” may cause a few jaws to drop with its 3D bacchanalia of epic proportions, set to a soundtrack that ranges from floor-rumbling organ (think Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on steroids) to an unholy disco/hip-hop hybrid to a pumped-up take on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
But Luhrmann has been responsible for plenty of dropped jaws in the past, so nobody should be too surprised to find that he’s doing it again with “Gatsby.”
In honor of the newest shiny bauble from the man whose devotion to excess has resulted in some thrilling moments and some disastrous ones, here are five notable WTF moments from Baz Luhrmann’s career:
“Moulin Rouge” goes Nirvana
Most Luhrmann movies have a moment where you you either surrender to the extravagance, or you might as well leave. The entire opening sequence of “Moulin Rouge” could fall into that category, with an unconscious Argentinian falling through Ewan McGregor‘s ceiling and John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec and a soundtrack that in its opening moments includes Leguizamo’s version of Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy,” McGregor singing “The Sound of Music” and Bono doing T-Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.”
But the WTF moment really arrives when McGregor’s character arrives at the Paris nightclub that gives the movie its name. There, he encounters a hysterical crowd led by Jim Broadbent gyrating to a hip-hoppish remake of “Lady Marmalade,” and then suddenly shifting as one into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “Here we are now/ Entertain us.”
It entertains us, all right.
“Romeo + Juliet” prologue
Luhrmann’s 1996 version of the Shakespeare classic kept the Bard’s language but relocated the action to the fictional Verona Beach, Florida, casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers.
The director sets the tone right away by giving us multiple versions of Shakespeare’s prologue. First there’s a small TV screen, on which a news anchor setting the scene: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…”
Then we shift to a frenetic trip through Verona beach while a more typically Shakespearean narrator recites the same words as Luhrmann shows us a jumble of street scenes, headlines, police in riot gear, aerial shots. Typically, no shot lasts more than a couple of seconds, with occasional titles spelling out significant words from the prologue and introducing the characters, who in this telling include Captain Prince (i.e., Shakespeare’s Prince) and Dave Paris (Juliet’s suitor, who in the original version is Count Paris, not Dave). The fact that Paris is played by Paul Rudd is kind of a WTF moment of its own.
At any rate, long before you even get to the cartoonish gas-station gun battle between the Montagues and Capulets, you know this is one bizarre (and by the way, exhilarating) “Romeo and Juliet.”
The “Australia” shower scene
In the epic that also stands as Luhrmann’s biggest critical flop (and also as the second highest-grossing Australian movie ever), Nicole Kidman is a prim British woman, Lady Sarah Ashley, traveling across Australia to see her husband. She’s being escorted by Hugh Jackman, a drover (cattle driver), who simply goes by “The Drover.”
You can see what’s going to happen a mile off, but it’s hard to anticipate just how ludicrously it happens. The Drover, naturally, has a gleaming, muscled torso, which he displays the first night they make camp, when he strips to the waist and pours water over himself is a way that really wouldn’t seem out of place on the Playboy Channel, were he of the opposite sex.
Lady Sarah watches from the tent. The Drover flexes. She stares. He shakes his damp mane. She gulps. Then she composes herself and starts complaining about the fact that the two of them, and their two Aboriginal hands, Maggari and Nullah, only have one tent.
“That’s all right,” the Drover explains. “Well, you know, it gets pretty chilly here at night. We like to bunk up together, eh Maggari?” Maggari agrees. The Drover starts pretending to shiver from the cold. Muggery does the same. So does Nullah. Then a dog gets in the act and starts barking. And the audience – even the ones who were temporarily distracted by that Drover flesh gleaming in the moonlight – lets out a collective, “WTF?”
“Moulin Rouge”: Elephant Love Medley
“Moulin Rouge” deserves two spots on the list mostly because it’s the most effectively over-the-top of Luhrmann’s movies. Case in point: the so-called “Elephant Love Medley,” an eight-minute duet between Kidman and McGregor that whips 10 different pop songs into a preposterously frothy and quite entertaining dialogue between the ardent Christian (McGregor) and the reluctant Satine (Kidman).
In order, the two sail through the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” Kiss’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which you might have thought was about Martin Luther King, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes ballad “Up Where We Belong,” David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Dolly Parton’s (or Whitney Houston’s) “I Will Always Love You” and Elton John’s “Your Song.”
Put those songs together on a playlist and see if they make any sense at all. (They don’t. But in the movie, somehow they do.)
“Strictly Ballroom” Finale
This is the most literal “WTF” scene, because as soon as it begins the emcee of the film’s climactic ballroom dancing competition takes a look at our hero Scott Hastings sliding out onto the dance floor and actually says, “What the …?”
Folks who watch “Dancing With the Stars” may be well-acquainted with the paso doble, but in the world of the film it’s shockingly new and au courant. That “what the … ” exclamation pretty much sums up how everybody at the final Australian Dance Federation competition reacts to the sight of Scott (Paul Mercurio) and his partner Fran (Tara Morice) whipping out those steps: Other competitors get mad and flustered, a fistfight breaks out, somebody shuts down the sound system to stop that awful dancing that simply isn’t strictly ballroom. And then (spoiler alert) the bad people fall down and Scott and Tara find the courage to continue and everybody dances and the movie ends.
And nobody says “WTF?” at the sight of paso doble ever again.