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No discussion of Baz Luhrmann’s films – and his maximalist, hyper-sensory style – is complete without mentioning their equally more-is-more approach to music. With the help of his longtime music supervisor Anton Monsted (who started out as his assistant on 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet”), the Australian director has become synonymous with era-defying, genre-compounding pop soundtracks that infuse his films’ historical settings with contemporary sensibilities.
That trademark first emerged in the 90’s-grunge soundtrack of “Romeo + Juliet” and eventually evolved into the mash-up mania of this year’s “Elvis.” Like “The Great Gatsby” and “Moulin Rouge!” before it, the box office hit blends the King’s classic tunes with reimagined and original songs by some of today’s biggest artists.
In honor of Luhrmann’s latest, TheWrap presents a ranking of his films by soundtrack. (Note: “Australia” and “Strictly Ballroom” do not have long enough soundtracks to merit inclusion.)
5. Elvis (2022)
This soundtrack of all soundtracks honors The King of Rock and Roll himself — and many of his influences — in Baz Luhrman’s signature dazzling style. Austin Butler’s vocals do justice to Elvis’ — as they should after his three-year immersion into the King’s persona and his life. You have classics sung by Elvis himself like “Craw-Fever,” “I’m Coming Home,” “Summer Kisses/In My Body,” “‘68 Comeback Special (Medley),” “If I Can Dream,” “Burning Love” and more, and then there are the Austin Butler versions of The King’s discography like “Hound Dog,” “Baby, Let’s Play House” and “Trouble.” Shonka Dukureh’s “Hound Dog” packs so much power. Yola’s “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” echoes “The Godmother of Rock and Roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who she portrays in the film.
As if Elvis weren’t already an icon himself, other major artists came together to reimagine his discography or sample it in new songs altogether. Doja Cat created a certified banger with “Vegas” which samples Shonka Dukureh’s “Hound Dog.” Eminem and CeeLo use the opening of “Jailhouse Rock” in their new song for the film, “The King and I.” Swae Lee and Diplo sample “That’s All Right” in their song “Tupelo Shuffle.” Kacey Musgraves’ rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” paired with the scene it backs evokes all kinds of feelings. Stevie Nicks shines some light on the lesser-known “Cotton Candy Land,” and Måneskin rocks out to “If I Can Dream.”
Putting together a soundtrack that reflects a musical fixture is no small feat, and Luhrman went big with this one. Layers of culture, American history and a touch of more modern sounds spice up Elvis’ biopic.
- Dessi Gomez
4. The Get Down (2016)
Luhrmann and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ two-season Netflix series chronicles the rise of hip-hop from its underground origins in the Bronx to its eventual transformation as a tentpole musical genre, as told by a group of teens living in New York City in the ‘70s. So, it’s only fitting that the soundtrack would reflect the times, with funk and disco inflections from artists like Donna Summer, Miguel, Janelle Monáe, Leon Bridges, 6LACK, Christina Aguilera and Jaden Smith (who also stars in the show). Hip-hop forefather Grandmaster Flash — the DJ who invented the “back-spinning” technique that was able to transform records’ drum beat sections into beats for rapping — helped advise on the series alongside notable MC Nas, who wrote all of the raps for Justice Smith’s wordsmith character Ezekiel.
“If your collection was limited, you [weren’t] gonna get no real audience,” Flash, who served as associate producer on the series, told ABC News in 2017 about the various genres of records he would search for to find the “get down.” “It was a constant digging and going into the record shops and trying to find that drum break. And it never was necessarily about Black music or white music or foreign music. It was just music.”
- Natalie Oganesyan
3. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
While “Strictly Ballroom” was a modest art-house hit, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” put Luhrmann on the global map. And it also cemented his status as a master of movie music, something that he would continue to reinforce throughout the rest of his (still ongoing) career.
Luhrmann smartly hired music producers Marius de Vries (who had worked with Madonna, winning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year for “Ray of Light”) and Nellee Hooper (then something of a soundtrack icon, having produced Smashing Pumpkins’ “The End Is the Beginning Is the End” and Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye”) to work alongside his regular composer Craig Armstrong. Not only did it give the score a thoroughly modern trip-hop texture that complimented his post-“Pulp Fiction” take on the source material, but it allowed de Vries and Hooper the opportunity to mix (or remix) the sounds that wound up on the soundtrack.
Together, they gave “#1 Crush,” initially a B-side from their inaugural single “Vow,” a slinky overhaul and a distorted Madonna sample, and helped select songs like Des’ree’s “Kissing You” (which Hooper had produced) and produce new songs like Butthole Surfer’s “Whatever (I Had a Dream)” (which was co-produced by the Dust Brothers). They ultimately ended up curating a grungy, electronically embellished mixtape that was a part of everybody’s CD collection (the disc itself was a distinct, neon orange color with silhouettes of palm trees). Radiohead? Check. Everclear, explicitly referencing the play? Double-check. Indistinguishable ‘90s alt-rock bands that you would be hard-pressed to remember today? Yes, please.
But if the soundtrack is remembered for anything, it’s introducing the world to “Lovefool,” the ultra-catchy single from Swedish pop rock outfit The Cardigans. The song had been released a few months before the soundtrack, the first single from their third album “First Band on the Moon.” But it exploded after its inclusion on the “Romeo + Juliet” soundtrack and propelled the band to global fame. It wouldn’t be their only soundtrack jam, either. “Erase/Rewind,” from their terrific 1998 album “Gran Turismo,” would appear on the soundtrack to the forgettable techno-thriller “The Thirteenth Floor.” Other songs would appear on the soundtracks to “The X-Files: Fight the Future,” “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” Rightfully so.
“Romeo + Juliet’s” original motion picture soundtrack would chart all around the world. In America, the album would reach 4 x platinum status, having sold more than 3 million copies. A second volume of the soundtrack was released with more songs, a greater emphasis on the orchestral score (and dialogue from the film, a staple of ‘90s soundtrack albums) and a new Butthole Surfers/Dust Brothers jam. It did reasonably well too. A 10th-anniversary edition of the original “Romeo + Juliet” soundtrack was released in 2007 with bonus tracks, including two of Craig Armstrong’s killer orchestral cues.
- Drew Taylor
2. The Great Gatsby (2013)
While not the first film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby,” Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation might reign supreme. In classic Luhrmann direction, his camp approach elevates the extravagance of Jay Gatsby’s world and the roaring twenties. Although set nearly a century prior, Luhrmann and longtime music supervisor, Anton Monsted, created a track list to reflect traditional jazz of the 1920s with the modern-day hip-hop from the 2010s. Monsted explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Baz and I call it the ‘sliding doors’ between music that is very true to the period of the movie’s setting in 1922 and the music of today.” The soundtrack features a crafty mixture of original singles from Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” to haunting covers — including Beyonce and Andre 3000’s rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” – as well as the film’s first single, “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey. Monsted and Lana Del Rey worked alongside composer Craig Armstrong, to incorporate the film’s theme as a musical motif by mixing the song within the score as well.
Nearly a decade later, audiences still recognize and replay Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” Accompanying Lana Del Rey’s theme, the album also includes tracks from Jay Z, The xx, Florence + the Machine, Jack White, Kanye West, Sia, and famed crooner Bryan Ferry and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra. Armstrong and Monsted perfectly crafted the pairing soundtrack and score, making the music’s presence one of the most recognizable elements in the film. “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack became the second best-selling soundtrack album of 2013 and has remained a pillar of Luhrmann and Monsted’s legacy.
- Charna Flam
1. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Inseparable from the cinematic extravaganza that is “Moulin Rouge!” is its multi-platinum, Grammy-winning soundtrack. Luhrmann’s first musical proper tells the tale of a poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor) who flocks to Bohemian Paris in pursuit of truth, beauty, freedom, and above all, love. He finds everything his heart desires in Satine (Nicole Kidman), the Moulin Rouge’s star courtesan and cabaret performer. The showmanship and soaring emotions at the core of the film required a musical masterpiece to match – and 20 years after its release, it’s clear that Luhrmann and Co. delivered. As co-writer Craig Pearce told EW, “Moulin Rouge!” was intended as a celebration of the 20th century’s greatest pop songs. In turn, the soundtrack features the likes of Madonna (“Material Girl”), The Beatles (“All You Need Is Love”), The Police (“Roxanne”), Elton John (“Your Song”), David Bowie (“Heroes”) and Dolly Parton (“I Will Always Love You”) and many more.
The majority of the tracks aren’t mere covers, but mash-ups of songs from various genres and original composition, tied together with touches of burlesque jazz. While the soundtrack boasts megawatt stars Bowie, Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Pink, Bono, and Beck among others, Kidman and McGregor’s voices never take a back seat. In fact, the music and narrative are so seamlessly interwoven that it’s easy to miss samples if you’re not looking out for them: “Elephant Love Medley” alone pulls from 10 different songs, and who could forget “Lady Marmalade”? Even the soundtrack’s only original number, “Come What May,” fits right in.
The music of “Moulin Rouge!” was so popular that it spawned a second soundtrack with more originals and remixes from the film, not to mention a Tony Award-winning musical. Beyond its enduring popularity, the soundtrack deserves the top spot for showcasing Luhrmann and Monsted’s singular talent for synthesizing contemporary pop and period storytelling.
- Harper Lambert