baz luhrmann and glenn o'brien talk bowie and the bronx over tea
“I always wanted to be on ‘TV Party,’ your original show. Now I feel like I’m on ‘Tea Party’,” Australian director Baz Luhrmann joked with NYC luminary Glenn O’Brien over a cup of tea at the Beatrice Inn earlier this week. Their conversation was the...
'The Get Down,' still courtesy Netflix
Creativity is about breaking rules: Luhrmann's first film, 1992's Strictly Ballroom — a romantic comedy about the cutthroat world of ballroom dancing — was adapted from a stage play he'd written in 1984 while studying at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Arts. Its success allowed him to establish a theater company, and caught the attention of music exec Ted Albert, who offered to make Strictly Ballroom into a film. Nearly every aspect of the film's financing and production was non-traditional (after his benefactor passed away unexpectedly during the film's creation, Luhrmann received an out-of-the-blue call from Cannes that the festival wanted to screen it, but only gave him a day to decide) — a fitting match for the film's themes of rebellion and originality. O'Brien asked Luhrmann how much of it was autobiographical; and while the director recounted lols stories of his mother's obsession with ballroom world, Luhrmann said the film's most autobiographical element is the struggle of a creative person. "The underlying philosophical idea in [Strictly Ballroom] is a rebellion against the idea that there's an organization which has a book that tells you when it comes to art, there's only one way to cha cha cha. And if you do it their way, you'll get the ticks and the crosses and a little trophy," Luhrmann explained. "I think that's a universal idea — that there's an organization that gives you ticks and crosses for creativity is fundamentally against creativity. You've gotta know the rules to break them, but if you aren't actually breaking the rules, then you're probably not advancing anything creatively, and you're probably not very true to yourself."
Creativity is also about making connections with other artists: Luhrmann's career has been about, in O'Brien's words, "making the unmakeable deal." He's done three-hour musicals, among them an Elizabethan English blockbuster and an Oscar-winning bohemian cabaret. Music has always been a big part of these creations, but as O'Brien pointed out, there are complicated legal structures in place to protect these musicians' rights. "In Moulin Rouge!, when we did that 'Elephant Love Medley,' in that few minutes of music, we have The Beatles, David Bowie, Elton's in that...The rights to this music at this time, off the card, were millions of dollars in rights — you know Phil Collins, U2, Dolly Parton," Luhrmann explained. How did he do it? "I rang up the artists." He sent Collins a note, scheduled his first ever meeting with Elton, and sat down with Dolly; "She said, 'I Will Always Love You'? You're gonna make that song a hit again, it's already been a hit two times!' The artists got it so quickly." According to Luhrmann, since the advent of shows like Glee, "a publishing company can't wait to do cross-fertilized musical mash-ups because the world has changed. But then, everyone said, 'that will never happen. You will never get that music in that show.' And I thank the artists...the greatest joy is to work with creatives. My job is to either help them flourish or reveal something about themselves that no one's yet seen."
Rule-breaking art is exactly why Baz wanted to revisit hip-hop's formative era: "I was so drawn to doing The Get Down because I wanted to answer the question: in a city that had so little — in a borough that was famously being reported on around the world like, 'what? This is in the first world?' — how did a pure new creative form come to life in this environment?" Baz explained of his motivation to create The Get Down, an ambitious portrait of hip-hop's emergence in the late 70s South Bronx. "I just curated the truth of what I was told from [Grandmaster] Flash, [Kool] Herc, Curtis Blow, there's a very long list. Everyone I worked with said, 'look: the thing about us as young kids in the Bronx was that the whole world was making documentaries about how terrible it was, and it was. We understood we were in a difficult place. But we only saw possibility; we only saw creativity.'"
Glenn witnessed an important crossover moment between uptown hip-hop and downtown punk: Anyone watching The Get Down will know that upstart rap isn't the only musical genre the show focuses on: disco ruled the world in 1977. Luhrmann and O'Brien chatted about the excellent disco music incubated at places like the Paradise Garage, the Mudd Club, and Studio 54. The genre would soon prove, in Luhrmann's words, a "cultural Titanic," while hip-hop — once seen as a fad — has exploded into an industry worth billions of dollars and a thriving culture. Beyond disco, though, was punk and new-wave, genres O'Brien knows about first-hand. "Grandmaster Flash and I were talking earlier about that incredible moment when he's in the Bronx doing this form of music that no one even knows about, and this young, punk, new-wave performer comes up called Debbie Harry to see what's going on. You were there," Luhrmann said to O'Brien, who had, in fact, driven the Blondie superstar up to the Boogie Down in his Toyota Corolla.
But back in Australia, Baz was listening to something totally different: "In 1977, I was living in a very tiny country town of about 11 houses in the middle of nowhere. I was totally obsessed with the rest of the world, and I was listening to Elton John, Bowie. I had this one little record player and music was my connection to the rest of the world," the director explained. "If you're as isolated as I was, you at least had a radio — it was a connector through time and space." Another connector through time and space: David Bowie. Luhrmann remembers first listening to Changes while crowded around a friend's record player on the Australian coast; he's since gone on to incorporate the icons music in his films, most memorably throughout Moulin Rouge!. "The other thing about Bowie that I have been subconsciously influenced by is that he'd take on periods and genres and personas, create characters," said Luhrmann. "He wasn't always this one expression of self, he kept evolving and changing. I think that's something we forget was such a revolution."
Watch more 'Tea at the Beatrice' here.
Text Emily Manning