How Baz Luhrmann and ‘Strictly Ballroom’ ignited Australia’s enduring crush on ‘Love Is In The Air’

Before ‘Elvis’ and Doja Cat, ‘Romeo + Juliet’ and Radiohead – there was ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and John Paul Young. We look at Australia’s favourite love song ahead of the movie’s 30th anniversary

Long before Baz Luhrmann had Elvis bumping down the road to Doja Cat, or Romeo and Juliet cursing their houses to a Radiohead B-side, he gave Australia Scott and Fran falling in love to John Paul Young’s delirious disco-lite gem, ‘Love Is In The Air’.

There are few moments in Aussie cinema that shine as vividly in our cultural psyche as the final scene in Strictly Ballroom: two minutes of schmaltzy joy that single-handedly revived JPY’s career and kicked off an enduring love affair with his biggest ever hit.

Released 30 years ago this August, Luhrmann’s debut feature is an idiosyncratically kitsch love story that – for a guy who would go on to call film scores the “opera of the 20th century” – actually has a pretty slight soundtrack dominated by classic dance numbers re-imagined by David Hirschfelder and the Bogo Pogo Orchestra. Which is not to say it isn’t very good. Outside of Paul Mercurio doing the paso doble in a Bonds singlet, one of the movie’s greatest gifts was re-introducing JPY to a whole new generation, giving ‘Love Is In The Air’ a legacy so strong it could rival Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’ as our unofficial national anthem.

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There are a handful of Aussie classics that can be counted on to get generations mingling and a wedding dancefloor bumping: Chisel, John Farnham’s ‘You’re The Voice’, Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’. Yet, at so many weddings I’ve attended there is only one moment that truly unites, transcending irony and drunken uncle back-slapping. When the DJ drops ‘Love Is In The Air’, something takes over even the most cynical. Much like the final scene in Strictly Ballroom, few can contain the desire to join Scott and Fran on the dance floor at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix.

Strictly Ballroom’s final scene is two minutes of schmaltzy joy that single-handedly revived John Paul Young’s career

So, how exactly did a ’70s love song rouse such affection that 40 years on from ‘Love Is In The Air’s release it is being performed to an ecstatic crowd of 15,000 millennials and Gen Zs at a Flight Facilities gig in Sydney?

John Paul Young was at the top of his game when he released ‘Love Is In the Air’, a misty-eyed disco delight written by George Young and Harry Vanda, in 1978. Over the next 12 months the song charted around the world, becoming Young’s first and only top 40 hit in the US. But despite its success and ongoing popularity in Germany and France, a decade later it had mostly faded from public consciousness here in Aus.

Enter Baz.

Strictly Ballroom was Baz’s first foray into cinema and, as composer David Hirschfelder tells it, had a tiny budget. This meant that where the movie needed a song they couldn’t afford to licence, he often had to write something in the song’s style instead. It also just happened to be an Alberts production, marking the legendary music and publishing company’s debut big film project. This is the label that helped launch the careers of AC/DC, The Easy Beats and – as luck would have it – one John Paul Young. So it was by this strange quirk of fate (and perhaps, a few budgetary constraints) that three of JPY’s songs featured in the film: ‘Yesterday’s Hero’, ‘Standing In The Rain’ and ‘Love Is the Air’.

Under the guiding hand of Hirschfelder ‘Love Is In The Air’ was re-recorded for the film. It was slightly jazzed-up, an added choir lifting the chorus from heartwarming to straight-up heavenly. Young has said that when recording the do-over he had no idea what Strictly Ballroom was about. The only footage he saw before singing his parts were the harlequin-like dream sequences between Scott’s dad and mum. He couldn’t have foreseen the film’s trajectory “at all”, he laughingly told the National Film and Sound Archive.

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John Paul Young
John Paul Young performing ‘Love Is In The Air’ at a marriage equality rally in Sydney in 2017. Credit: Don Arnold/Getty Images

Strictly Ballroom would go on to become a piece of Aussie cultural canon. Receiving a standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes, it remains one of Australia’s most successful films of all time.

But it wasn’t just box office numbers that made ‘Love Is In The Air’ stick. There was a strange kind of alchemy that occurred when the slightly new version of the song collided with Baz’s vision. The first time we hear ‘Love Is In the Air’ in Strictly Ballroom is in the film’s dizzying and triumphant final scene. It’s corny, screwball, camp and so full of heart – and somehow that sense of collective joy imprinted on the song itself. This alchemy has meant the song has endured in a way no-one – not least JPY – ever imagined.

For its re-release, ‘Love Is In The Air’ also got a new – and very Baz – video. In it, Young gives an understated performance as resurrected ’70s heartthrob that subtly nods to the song’s original video and audience. It also features the film’s stars Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice in a dreamy lovers’ embrace, which helped permanently fuse the two pieces of art – song and film – in our hearts and minds.

Such a part of our cultural fabric has ‘Love Is In the Air’ become that John Paul Young was invited to perform it at the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony. A highlight of the night, JPY dazzled the world – clad in a gaudy silver suit and surrounded by ballroom dancers, he belted out the song to a stadium of delirious athletes and billions of viewers.

On a vastly smaller stage two decades later, he would perform ‘Love Is In The Air’ with just as much gusto at a Marriage Equality rally in Sydney, turning the song into a kind of unofficial anthem for the moment. Young and old rapturously screamed the chorus with him.

Writing in his autobiography, JPY reflected on the song’s rebirth: “‘Love Is In The Air’ is so strong and I don’t think I ever realised that myself, yet here I am still living off that one song and, more pertinently, living off the resurrection of that song in 1992.”

‘Love Is In The Air’ has crossed generations, hearts, and minds. And I don’t know if I’m being foolish, but I can’t see this love affair ending anytime soon.

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