American moxie and folly are submitted to a mad spin cycle in this week's "The Great Gatsby," writer-director Baz Luhrmann's characteristically lush and glitzy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel -- still an assigned reading classic for high school and college students across the United States, almost a century on. The Australian-born Luhrmann puts an interesting, energetic spin on the material.
His previous collaboration with "Gatsby" star Leonardo DiCaprio, 1996's "Romeo + Juliet," was a swoon-worthy hit with critics and young audiences alike, to the tune of a $147 million worldwide gross. But it's the director's 1992 big screen debut which remains arguably his most enduring treat, if one adjusts to scale for surprise and unexpected vitality. A hyper-stylized, wildly offbeat and culturally specific yet universally appealing comedy, "Strictly Ballroom" is a movie bristling with verve and youthful energy, and it clearly serves as a marker for the sort of sweeping, outsized ambitions that Luhrmann himself has subsequently pursued over the course of his career.
Its story charts an Australian male dancer, Scott (Paul Mercurio), who eschews the formalities of ballroom dancing and rages against the stodgy competition establishment which refuses to recognize his talent. When his longtime partner Liz (Gia Carides) suddenly leaves him for another dancer, Scott takes Fran (Tara Morice), a beginner seemingly without promise, under his protective wing. Blossoming and triumph ensues.
From its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where it picked up the Prix de Jeunesse ("Award of the Youth") and was snapped up for Stateside distribution by Miramax's Harvey and Bob Weinstein, "Strictly Ballroom" laid out the Luhrmann blueprint: a florid, highly adorned style, married to tales of mad, all-consuming love (be it of people, place, lifestyle, or all three). A lot of young filmmakers attempt to impose their will on material, in an effort to call attention to their skills. For Luhrmann, though, "Strictly Ballroom" would prove emblematic of a highly theatrical visual style always married to Big Emotions.
The film's special edition DVD release, from 2010, remains the best way to experience it. Porting over all bonus features from its initial home video release, including a feature-length audio commentary track with Luhrmann, production designer (and offscreen partner) Catherine Martin and choreographer-actor John O'Connell, the DVD gives viewers rich anecdotes aplenty, and a nice sense of low-budget filmmaking camaraderie. The crown jewel, though, is a 23-minute featurette, unique to this version, which charts the project from inception to whirlwind international reception.
Luhrmann has graduated to bigger and bigger budgets since, but there remains something endearing and charming about the go-for-broke yearning and sense of mischief at the heart of "Strictly Ballroom." Its heartbeat captures the absorbing nature of a passion, and its poster tagline ("A life lived in fear is a life half-lived…") might as well serve as an official motto for the rest of Luhrmann's career.
Watch the theatrical trailer for 'The Great Gatsby':