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The Flipside #11: Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Something For Everybody’

The Flipside examines film director Baz Luhrmann's surprisingly lively bubblegum pop effort Something for Everybody, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Something For Everybody
Baz Luhrmann

SAWDEY: The year is 2018. Music journalists continue to review albums, industry types debate whether streaming and physical are still dead or dying or are secretly the future of consuming music, and some publications persevere while others shutter in unfortunate circumstances.

In many ways, this year is much like any other year, but the reviews have gotten more straightforward, the thinkpieces have gotten weirder and edgier, and pop idols who thought they could trot the battlelines of poptimism vs. rockism and come out unscathed are learning that in this increasingly critical era, pop stars must continue to prove themselves, which is why chart-toppers are no longer guaranteed for the likes of Katy Perry or Timberlake. Once-constant critical darlings like The Shins must continue to prove themselves, Jack White can still move units even if his music receives a mixed reception, and we all continue to grapple with our feelings towards Drake.

So in that vein, one tradition that keeps popping up for a lot of publications is the anniversary feature. Sometimes these are reflections for small but cult-ready releases (think Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner, which came out 15 years ago), and sometimes they’re for truly momentous works of art (where were you when Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town came out some four decades ago?). The purpose of these pieces should go one of two ways: either to enhance our understanding of something that’s already beloved or perhaps to introduce the world to a release that perhaps hasn’t had its day in the sun. (Rarely are the pieces dismantling the legacy of a “classic” record, but make no mistake: there is an audience for them.)

Sometimes publications go big on these anniversary features, interviewing bands and engineers and gaining rare bits of insight into an album’s creation. Sometimes, it’s personal and reflective essays that show how these records truly shaped our lives.

So, Mr. Ezell, I think we should take the Flipside and turn it into an album anniversary machine, capable of churning out great #content while re-evaluating a hit record from 20 years ago. We all know it’s a bona fide classic, so let’s dig into a hit-making, Gold-certified album that truly defined an era: film director Baz Luhrmann’s one-off pop music potpourri compilation Something for Everybody (1998). I take it you’re extremely familiar, no?

EZELL: I am in exactly no ways familiar with Something for Everybody, and now that I do know what it is my initial surprise at the thought of an album made by Luhrmann has evaporated. If one were to imagine a record made by the gaudy auteur behind Moulin Rouge and the confectionery sweet 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, of course it would sound like Something for Everybody.

When it comes to the two types of anniversary thinkpiece you identify — either putting a classic in a new light or re-introducing a lost album — Something for Everybody clearly occupies the latter space. This column is no stranger to such unearthings; after all, we began with you graciously allowing me to make my case for Oasis’ Heathen Chemistry, an LP that has probably only known bargain bins since 2005. (Well, unless you count the fancy vinyl reissue which, yes, I bought.) Generally speaking, I prefer those anniversary pieces that introduce me to music I’ve never heard before. There is value in illuminating unexamined aspects of over-examined records, but putting a shine on a classic pales in comparison to that feeling of, “Where has this been all my life?”

Does Something for Everybody engender those emotions in me? No. But I’m glad to know that it exists, as it is revealing of both Luhrmann’s eccentricities and just how carnivalesque ’90s pop was. Luhrmann’s films contain a repository of musical odds and ends, no one more distinct than that classic of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, Romeo + Juliet. However, I’d never thought of Luhrmann having a distinct musical vision in the way he does when it comes to filmmaking. Most of the time, these 17 songs reflect the visual ethos of Luhrmann’s ’90s films; it’s hard to say that they feel like a distinct entity apart from his work in film. So my initial reaction in discovering this long-lost LP is mostly: “Yeah, Luhrmann’s a quirky dude,” a feeling more than aptly communicated by a rewatch of Romeo + Juliet.

But what about you, Evan? Do you see something that I don’t?

SAWDEY: Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve ever heard it all the way through. If we’re going to do an arbitrary anniversary retrospective, let’s get as arbitrary as we can get, baby!

Yet in all seriousness, I did fall at the time for the absolute fluke hit that was “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, a spoken-word piece of inspirational graduating class motivation set to some music that feels lovingly Spirit Gum’d together (a wah guitar here, a hip-hop drum beat there, etc.) The song touches on nostalgia and is well composed and could only be a hit in the late ’90s. Sure, Primitive Radio Gods slurred their way through “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” and it was Laurie Anderson who rewrote the rules of what a hit single could even be some 15 years prior with the experimental “O Superman”, so Baz’s effort falls very much in that tradition. Even listening to it with 2018 ears, it still holds up.

That isn’t something I can say for the rest of the album. While this isn’t bad by any means, this album for “everybody” is pulled from disparate elements of Luhrmann’s directing career, from film (a cover of The Cardigans’ Romeo + Juliet soundtrack feature “Lovefool” by someone named Snooper that just didn’t need to exist) to theatre (“Now Until the Break of Day” is just Puck’s final monologue from A Midsummer’s Night Dream turned into a ’90s dance pop song, which, given the Fairy King and Queen just booked it off stage seconds before, makes sense). There are covers aplenty, from Prince to the Fifth Dimension, but all of it makes me wonder if this is designed for everybody or exists just to amuse Luhrmann himself.

We’ve seen directors do vanity projects as of late — David Lynch certainly thinks he has a music career, but John Carpenter actually does — but Luhrmann’s act of vanity truly does feel like a perfect storm of era and art meeting together. There is no way I would ever call Something for Everybody a brilliant piece of work, but as a document of the height of record label capitalism and the sample-based, borrow-from-any-genre pop music style that so dominated the ’90s rock and dance scenes, it feels fitting in a way. The takeaways may be minimal, but there are some.

Do you think anyone in our present day and age could ever try to pull something off like this, much less it be successful? Although this pick for this column was a bit of a lark, did you find any takeaways in question?

EZELL: I too wonder if this project was more for Luhrmann’s benefit than ours, but then I remembered a phenomenon I’ve noticed in the comments sections of movie trailers on YouTube. Almost inevitably, one of the top comments will be, “Which song was that playing near the end of the trailer?” In a pre-YouTube era, right on the cusp of the digital revolution in music, I can easily see fans clamoring for an easily accessible version of the major songs utilized in his movies, particularly if they wanted a sampling of songs rather than a soundtrack to just one of his films. In that way, Something for Everybody is a legitimate title. I don’t know how many Luhrmann stans there are out there, but should they exist, this compilation will more than satisfy.

You are right to situate Something for Everybody in the context of other musical projects by film directors, as that is the one arena in which revisiting this LP would prove instructive or enlightening. On its own, Something for Everybody doesn’t feel like an album proper, but rather a colorful grab bag of songs familiar and obscure. Listening to it, you’ll be reminded that “Time After Time” and “When Doves Cry” are great songs, and that Doris Day does a marvelously swanky version of “Quizás, quizás, quizás.”

However, you’ll also rediscover just how much mediocre Europop (“Lovefool”) we put up with in the ’90s, or that there was a time when people thought that a breakbeat alone could sustain a song, no matter what you threw on top of it (“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”). It’s hard to have a totalizing opinion about Something for Everybody because it resists big-picture interpretations. The determinant factor of one’s engagement with the LP will be her opinion of Luhrmann’s work outside of music, and for that reason, I find the looking backward value in this music not in the music on its own, but rather Luhrmann’s broader artistic corpus.

To me, the director/musician phenomenon is a rarity, and the examples you point out are a case in point. Most people didn’t go crazy (or, if you will, Crazy Clown Time) for Lynch’s musical output, which surprised me given how quickly critics foam at the mouth about anything he does. (For a case in point, see the breathless rush to produce The Most Significant Thinkpiece about the return of Twin Peaks last year, which, despite being made for television and structured episodically, is really a “film,” don’t you know.) Carpenter might be the most successful of this kind of crossover, which probably has to do with his success in scoring his own films. The Lost Themes records didn’t blow me away, but they did make me think, “Huh, this guy knows what he’s doing.”

In a way, I feel the same thing about Luhrmann when listening to Something for Everybody. If nothing else, the disc does achieve what is required of a Luhrmann film: decadence. This is an excessive, jubilant, and colorful affair. That it has no particular logical structure or narrative flow is irrelevant; it paints the image of all these musicians toasting each other with fizzy drinks at an opulent party where Leonardo DiCaprio will eventually be shot and killed into a pool (I think). By this same token, however, the main feeling I’m left with once the aural party has died down is, “Why not just re-watch Moulin Rouge?”

SAWDEY: That’s absolutely fair. In truth, Something for Everybody exists as a glorious curio, a product of the era, and one that, surprisingly, remains listenable. It may just be a gem of insight into the mind of a creative individual still turning out projects to this day, but its bubblegum power still holds.

So Mr. Ezell, ‘cos we’re here, which directors would you like to see music from? In truth, as he’s so good presenting himself on camera in both acting roles and interviews, the What We Do in the Shadows/Thor: Ragnarok helmer Taika Waititi would be someone whom we all very much would like to hear more from. His songs would no doubt have some comic/amusing bent, but if he’s got any rhythm in him, it would make for a fascinating listen.

EZELL: Oh, the hypotheticals. As much as I could try to imagine the compositional capabilities of the directors I admire, I’d rather err on the safe side, by which I mean deferring to the division of labor that’s set up: the director and the composer. The best directors team up with composers that can match their visual style and understand the process that goes into their filmmaking. Take the case of my favorite currently working director, Denis Villeneuve: on Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, he called upon Jóhann Jóhannsson to compose some tense and gorgeous soundscapes to match the slow pacing and meditative mood of those films.

One of the last achievements of Jóhannsson, who suddenly passed away earlier this year at a still-young age, is a score that doesn’t even exist. After starting to map out a score for mother! with director Darren Aronofsky, Jóhannsson decided to back out of the project after he and Aronofsky realized that the film worked better without music at all. Sure enough, mother! became one of my more visceral viewing experiences in recent years, due in large part to the eerie silences of the background.

What does this example show us? Directors craft their best work when they know how to delegate, a fact that holds especially true with the music. Because the music is being informed by the images, the director is always involved, even if he doesn’t show up to the recording studio during session work. In the case of Something for Everybody, Luhrmann doesn’t have to be as involved, given that he didn’t write these compositions himself, but rather (if you’ll pardon the buzzword) curated them. So just as Jóhannsson served Villeneuve and Aronofsky’s interests, this cornucopia captures and represents Luhrmann’s aesthetic. Had he tried to write these songs on his own, I can’t be sure things would have turned out so well.

SAWDEY: They can’t all be David Lynch’s Crazy Clown Time, Brice.