Does the Great Gatsby Soundtrack Actually Work in The Great Gatsby?
Had Baz Luhrmann decided to take things even remotely seriously in his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, he could've just used the Bryan Ferry Orchestra's 2012 album The Jazz Age in its entirety, instead of merely inviting Ferry to supply two incongruous songs for its soundtrack.
Granted, lots of Jay-Z fans look like this now.
But nothing about Luhrmann's adaptation bears the weight of seriousness, and so we're left with Jay-Z's predictably over-the-top, predictably catchy, predictably fun soundtrack instead. All well and good, to be sure, and a suitable record to spin at the beginning of your well-intentioned Gatsby-themed cocktail party, before all your friends get too drunk and just ask you to start playing Skrillex anyway.
Since the consensus is essentially that the hyperactive film is a mess and the scattershot soundtrack pretty doggone successful, it's worth asking how they fit together -- whether this mash-up of well-to-do Roaring '20s misadventure and modern hip-hop/pop, well, works.
Like Luhrmann's curious decision to cast Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the quite-clearly Jewish role of Meyer Wolfsheim, having an African-American icon curate the soundtrack to the film seems a direct rebuttal to Fitzgerald's having only mentioned "negroes" twice in the book: a weird, quasi-corrective action that helps as much as it hinders.
Mostly, it works -- sometimes especially well. When, in Fitzgerald's book, we get, "As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl," Luhrmann gives us gyrating, attractive black men and women chugging Moët in the drop-top, standing up, and grinding to Jay's "Izzo (H.O.V.A)." It's a euphoric, delectable moment, with everything looking like great fun. And, really, it's a necessary move by Luhrmann if he wishes to capture how bizarre and new this all is to Nick Carraway, the novel and film's narrator.
In the book, Carraway laughs "aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry." But filmed without the exaggeration -- and without "Izzo" serving as the backdrop -- we'd get a lifeless scene in which they merely pass a few black people in a car, and it would seem strange to modern viewers that Carraway even notices them.
It's clear that Luhrmann chose 21st-century hip-hop as a sort of shorthand for '20s jazz, a.k.a. music with mass appeal primarily performed by African-Americans. Even if he never fully commits to the decision (jazz is still peppered here and there and mostly feels stale alongside Jigga and Yeezy), there's wisdom behind the move.
But it raises some important questions. Is Luhrmann's target audience -- Red Bull-addled teenagers, from the looks of it -- really going to be threatened by hip-hop in the way Fitzgerald's characters would've been by jazz? Is their relationship with it as complex? In short, is hip-hop the jazz of 2013 or is the comparison too reductive?
Luhrmann, of course, can't be counted on for a cogent answer. Nor does he -- or Jay-Z, for that matter -- seem all that interested in having us explore the question. Instead, there's the party, the love story, the dancing, the fabulous flapper haircuts. Nothing here is serious enough to bear much digging, unfortunately. Luhrmann and Carter get the drunken revelry right but flub the inevitable hangover.
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