Glam music is not my forte. I admire it, what I’ve listened to I love, and I am a stalwart acolyte at the sacred shrine of Bowie, but beyond that I am an amateur learning about this shining world (hence the fact I’d never seen Velvet Goldmine until this month). So I might not be able to curate the glam experience as skillfully as Amber did earlier this week. But I can offer my newbie experience, and part of that has been observing the ways glam sinks into the outside world, how everything has a little sparkle.
Netflix recently announced a new original series for next year, The Get Down, a thirteen-episode musical drama helmed by none other than Baz Luhrmann. Is there a director more glam than Luhrmann? He’s a filmmaker known for his lack of subtlety, not in an aggravatingly-explosive Michael Bay way, but in an explosion of lush visuals and stagecraft as extravagant as any of Ziegfeld’s Follies. Luhrmann productions are bound to have a completely batty first twenty minutes (usually with a whirling, trippy party scene), some exquisite romantic drama, and a sincerity of motive that makes his movies simple, beautiful, and some of the most glamorous productions in the scene. Although his recent directorial outing in The Great Gatsby fits in with the greatest of glam, nothing shows the traits better than his first three movies, collectively grouped as the “Red Curtain” Trilogy.
Glam rock is heavily associated with elaborate theatricality—intricate, often sparkling costumes; impeccably planned choreography; exaggerated motions and expressions; and sets so towering and shiny that they would be at home in any futuristic space setting (or in the mind of a drugged-out fantasy author). These are all Luhrmann’s trademarks! What other director would insert a delicious drag performance right in the middle of Shakespeare? Or base a love song around a smoky, glittering dance sequence among a mini-scape of Paris? Even Strictly Ballroom, the most restrained of the trilogy (leave it to Luhrmann to make ballroom dancing positively mundane compared to one of Shakespeare’s worst plays), has elaborate dance scenes and a staged flashback that’s near pantomime. Naturally.
He can’t escape delicious theatre imagery, showing a respect and fascination with the evoking theater visuals that would be absurd if it weren’t so perfect. The scene that really kickstarts the romance in Strictly Ballroom happens on a stage, the two characters dancing a romantically-charged rumba against a red curtain backdrop. Romeo is introduced smoking in the Sycamore Grove, a free-standing proscenium on the beach, a scene that makes the literature lover in me tingle with the layers of meaning—and, of course, that adds a dash of the theatrical to even the most serious proceedings. And Moulin Rouge is an actual theatre. It’s everything in the beating pulse of that musical. If a winking self-awareness of the theatricality of real life isn’t glam, what is?
This is the point where I have to think that Luhrmann knows what he is doing. It’s hard to have glam without the music. It’s the pulsing heart of the movement, the rhythm underscoring everything. All the emotional beats in the trilogy—not just in Moulin Rouge, whose musical genre demands that payoff, but in every single film—are told with strongly accompanying soundtrack. Strictly Ballroom isn’t complete without the sultry Doris Day vocals slinking around romantic scenes, and even less so without the montage set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” something that feels quintessentially exuberant. Romeo + Juliet has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time (ALL TIME!). It didn’t just recruit Radiohead for two songs (maybe not glam, but so freaking cool and worth mentioning), but also had the aforementioned dance number to drive the music home. But it was Moulin Rouge that hit it out of the park, opening and closing with none other than the Duke himself, David Bowie covering “Nature Boy.”
The blurring, or eradication, of masculine and feminine is a trademark of glam, a parcel of total embracing of what you love, regardless of gender norms. Luhrmann definitely sprinkles that into his films. There is nothing leaner and more lovely than a ballroom dancer, and don’t discount the head-on recognition of the male dancers being comfortable with makeup and glitter. We could discuss the beautiful, spritely, pubescent body of a still baby-faced Leo DiCaprio as proof of androgyny, but why would we do that when there’s a Mercutio in the scene? Harold Perrineau wears heels and a silver mini with more confidence than most of the world’s population, and is still the ultimate badass and best part of the movie. With Moulin Rouge, David Wenham deserves a special shout out for his all-too-brief portrayal of Audrey, artist and ultimate purveyor of bohemian ideals.
The Real Self
All of this—the theatrics, the singing, the identity—serves expression of the ideal self. To quote Moulin Rouge, it’s all about “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.” Glam is kicking against the pricks, both literal and metaphorical. It’s why “glam rock” is so hard to pin down and encompasses everything from punk to baroque-inspired ballads. The musical style isn’t important. The quest is. The quest to be the most real self. Yes, expressed through masks and costumes and makeup, but expressed. Put out there, regardless of acceptance or societal expectations. Glam is a struggle to be heard and to embrace truth, to have the freedom to be whoever and whatever.
This is the central struggle in Luhrmann’s trilogy. Scott Hastings just wants to dance his own steps, and Fran just wants to dance. Romeo and Juliet want to defy their stars, to cast off the shackles of their names and families and decades of war, to love whom they wish. And in Moulin Rouge? Satine wants to be a real actress, because that represents freedom, but she also wants the freedom to love. Christian knows that he has an artistic voice, but needs to discover it, needs to find his truth. Together, they learn who they really are and what they really want. They are all stories of seeking for honesty in expression. A fight against oppressive reality, a yearning for something real. That’s the story of glam, and if it can be told with dance and poetry and song, all the better.