Does the Great Gatsby Soundtrack Actually Work in The Great Gatsby?

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leonardo-dicaprio-plays-the-strenuously-polished-trove-of-secrets-that-is-jay-gatsby-in-baz.jpg
Granted, lots of Jay-Z fans look like this now.
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.

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.

Read More:
- How Arrested Development (and its new trailer) rehabilitated "The Final Countdown."
- Was "Accidental Racist" really racist?
- Will Spotify and Pandora ever figure out how to pay musicians?



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10 comments
smackydoodle17
smackydoodle17

The dubstep/hiphop combination to me lacks musical creativity. They could have easily made jazz amazing in this film, but they wanted the kids to hear the club music and think "oh man we gotta see this." I'm normally a fan of juxtaposition, but the music really missed the mark.

NewPoeticJustice
NewPoeticJustice

I absolutely loved the movie, and the soundtrack, it marks a shift in generations. When in a movie of such quality, story,  great acting, oh not to mention time frame, you'd expect an old dull jazz soundtrack (not that I mind jazz), but I think not only were they trying to attract a younger crowd, but the music was absolutely wonderful in the use of exaggerating the dramatic parties. and lifestyles that were being had in this period of Gatsby's life. The only people who will complain about the soundtrack to this amazing movie, will be those of a dying generation, complaining that the music was only catch, over the top, or simply just didn't match the period in which the movie took place. I think that its time to accept that no "tween" would see this movie, and be able to appreciate the film. Tthey are addressing a now adult generation who grew up with the mainstream culture being hip-hop and which it is still today, so why not liven up a movie that most people wouldn't have seen because of its repeatedly already been done soundtrack, lets be honest great movie but the period, and love-story aspect doesn't stray to far from that of The Notebook, and though a great movie as well, it was a nice touch to add a modern feel to this movie which I feel made it that much more enthralling, To also state I am not some brainless "tween" I am in my 20's own and run an extremely successful business, I am both school and self-educated and it wasn't the soundtrack that attracted me, it was already being a fan of The Great Gatsby,  as well as I enjoy a good Leonardo DiCaprio film which were the contributing factors in my decision, I hadn't even heard the soundtrack until already paid for the movie. I think it is close minded for you all to try to call out a genre of music because you don't fully understand it, or you wouldn't have used it. It's also hilarious to see the same complaints that older adults make about rap/r&b are being made on this site, when really it doesn't matter, your method's of speaking about what you don't know are so obvious but the icing on the cake is you do understand no one really cares about your opinion so you find a site to go and trying to speak on a generation in plain English you simply don't understand.  Though we are all entitled to our opinion, you folks will have to say goodbye to you being the majority because my generation is now becoming the mainstream everything and that's why you hear rap and r&b music everywhere, because hip-hop is now the new mainstream culture, funny enough you know who are the pioneers to this culture? African Americans, I am sure that must make so many shit there pants, nothing like coming home to catch your 10 year old daughter dancing to 50 cent, or going to see a movie based off of a great book and all you here is rap, well strap in tight because the tide is coming and things are changing, and I am so honored to be apart of the change. If anyone wants to complain about the newer generations, just remember you all birthed and raised them, so don't blame us!

NewPoeticJustice
NewPoeticJustice

I absolutely loved the movie, and the soundtrack, it marks a shift in generations. When in a movie of such quality, story,  great acting, oh not to mention time frame, you'd expect an old dull jazz soundtrack (not that I mind jazz), but I think not only were they trying to attract a younger crowd, but the music was absolutely wonderful in the use of exaggerating the dramatic parties. and lifestyles that were being had in this period of Gatsby's life. The only people who will complain about the soundtrack to this amazing movie, will be those of a dying generation, complaining that the music was only catch, over the top, or simply just didn't match the period in which the movie took place. I think that its time to accept that no "tween" would see this movie, and be able to appreciate the film. Tthey are addressing a now adult generation who grew up with the mainstream culture being hip-hop and which it is still today, so why not liven up a movie that most people wouldn't have seen because of its repeatedly already been done soundtrack, lets be honest great movie but the period, and love-story aspect doesn't stray to far from that of The Notebook, and though a great movie as well, it was a nice touch to add a modern feel to this movie which I feel made it that much more enthralling, To also state I am not some brainless "tween" I am in my 20's own and run an extremely successful business, I am both school and self-educated and it wasn't the soundtrack that attracted me, it was already being a fan of The Great Gatsby,  as well as I enjoy a good Leonardo DiCaprio film which were the contributing factors in my decision, I hadn't even heard the soundtrack until already paid for the movie. I think it is close minded for you all to try to call out a genre of music because you don't fully understand it, or you wouldn't have used it. It's also hilarious to see the same complaints that older adults make about rap/r&b are being made on this site, when really it doesn't matter, your method's of speaking about what you don't know are so obvious but the icing on the cake is you do understand no one really cares about your opinion so you find a site to go and trying to speak on a generation in plain English you simply don't understand.  Though we are all entitled to our opinion, you folks will have to say goodbye to you being the majority because my generation is now becoming the mainstream everything and that's why you hear rap and r&b music everywhere, because hip-hop is now the new mainstream culture, funny enough you know who are the pioneers to this culture? African Americans, I am sure that must make so many shit there pants, nothing like coming home to catch your 10 year old daughter dancing to 50 cent, or going to see a movie based off of a great book and all you here is rap, well strap in tight because the tide is coming and things are changing, and I am so honored to be apart of the change. If anyone wants to complain about the newer generations, just remember you all birthed and raised them, so don't blame us!

hicknhixville
hicknhixville

Overall the misplaced symbolism is a juvenile distraction from the richly detailed visual period recreations. The idea that PG-13 hip hop trashing Taylor Swift is somehow "daring" and the only way to get tweens and the Ritlan Generation to relate to the 1920s is a notorious and ridiculous cope out. This soundtrack is a marketing, not an artistic, decision, but the movie can be enjoyed for its good aspects despite this particular silly shortcoming.   It doesn't matter to me that rap is in this movie.  What matters is they justify it with false notions.  It's in there because they think it will help them make money on soundtrack sales, and get teen girls into the theater. They may fear that a 38 year old DiCaprio isn't enough, but that is another matter.


As for their argument, I would disagree that hip hop or rap had anything approaching the same cultural impact when it first appeared that jazz (or more particularly blues) did during the 1920s. The twenties was a decade of "first impression" culturally, a clean break with everything that had gone before, the first complete synthesis of mass commercial culture with (albeit limited) technology, and a distinct white youth culture embracing looser underclass morality and raunchy music. Everything since is just a refinement and derivation of its model. Even rock and rock's impact in the 1950s was probably less revolutionary.

Most people really do not have any idea about what this music sounded like in clubs, juke joints, or speakeasies during this period because all "modern" renderings of it are just as PG-13 as the soundtrack in this movie. The actual music was nasty and loud, and in that sense it had all the impact of gangsta rap, but with a generation not jaded by anything like it from the past. One cannot possibly begin to assess its impact by listening to old, poor shellac 78 records. Blues was conceived as a musical form with small string ensembles, bass, guitar, banjo, etc., but because of technological limitations (no electrical amplification or the ability to record multiple tracks) the music was played then with larger bands using horns in order to generation a lot of sound. The essential construct and rhythms were so close to what would become rock and roll that so many of these songs, like "House of the Rising Sun," "Midnight Special," were covered less explicitly decades later by rock bands playing the music essentially the way it would have been played then if technology had allowed. 

So you still think the twenties was all "Toot Toot Tootsie," and "Barbershop" music, just like today is all Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber?

"Got nipples on my titties big as the end uh my thumb,
got somethin' 'tween my legs'll make a dead man come,
Oh daddy, baby won't you shave 'em dry?... 
Want you to grind me baby, grind me until I cry. 
...I f*cked all night, and all the night before ..
And I feel just like I wanna, f*ck some more, 
Oh great God daddy,... 
Grind me honey and shave me dry...
I would f*ck you baby, honey I'd make you cry. 
Now your nuts hang down like a damn bell sapper, 
And your d*ck stands up like a steeple, 
Your goddam ass-hole stands open like a church door, 
And the crabs walks in like people. 
Ow, sh*t!...
My back is made of whalebone, 
And my c*ck is made of brass, 
And my f*ckin' is made for workin' men's two dollars, 
Great God, round to kiss my a**. 
Oh! Whoo, daddy, shave 'em dry

Shave 'em Dry Blues (Bessie Jackson version)

And of course there was "cleaner" music from artists that sold millions of those shellac records:

Honey baby, won't you cuddle near,
just sweet mama whisper in your ear
I'm wild about that thing, it makes me laugh and sing,
give it to me papa, I'm wild about that thing
Do it easy, honey, don't get rough,
from you, papa, I can't get enough
I'm wild about that thing, I'm wild about that thing,
everybody knows it, I'm wild about that thing
Please don't hold it, baby, when I cry,
give me every bit of it or else I'll die
I'm wild about that thing, ja da ging ging ging,
all the time I'm cryin', I'm wild about that thing
What's the matter, papa, please don't stop,
don't you know I love it and I want it all?
I'm wild about that thing, just give my bell a ring,
you touched my button, I'm wild about that thing
If you want so satisfy my soul,
come on and rock me with a steady roll

I'm Wild About That Thing (Bessie Smith)

Gershwinstwin
Gershwinstwin

Soundtrack is awful - it does not work AT ALL. The film is about the Jazz Age? Where's the Jazz? I don't understand how you can compare hip-hop to jazz age music. It would have made more sense to substitute Jazz for electronica/progressive house than hip-hop, but even that would have been a really inappropriate choice. The most entertaining part of the movie was trying to guess what songs the girls who we see 'singing' in the film were actually singing as the film was being shot - as it is obvious the soundtrack was written and added in later. It's quite bizarre. The film starts to 'float' magnificently when we hear Rhapsody in Blue  - & then quickly sinks back into music that we most certainly wont be listening to a hundred years from now.

hicknhixville
hicknhixville

@Gershwinstwin You bring up an interesting point.  Even the Rhapsody in Blue is misplaced because this is not what the bands would have been playing at Gatsby's parties either.  The Gershwin music is a more "classical" rendering of then current pop culture themes.  The smaller ensemble bands at the parties would have been playing the rawer, louder, and more improvised music Rhapsody in Blue is based on.

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

@Gershwinstwin  Look at it from a different perspective.  The film isn't about the Jazz Age.  Ok, I haven't seen the film, but the book certainly isn't about the Jazz Age.  It's about a man who uses the most upbeat and modern elements of pop culture to draw the attention of a woman he wants to win back.  At the time the book was written, Fitzgerald may not have believed that people would still be listening to jazz even 50 years later.  That wasn't the point.  The point was that it was what would draw people to parties at that time.

Trying to update the book without losing the original period is a tremendous challenge, and, as reviewers love to be able to say, like Gatsby himself, the result is impressive on the surface, but falls short of its goal.

Dan_Moore
Dan_Moore

@valleynative @Gershwinstwin This is a really good point. In fact, from his use of the word in his stories and letters I think it's reasonable to assume that Fitzgerald believed jazz was entirely of its time, not a lasting cultural movement. 

"Jazz" as it's used in Fitzgerald has a lot in common with "dubstep" as it was used last year—it's something new and threatening and half-understood that the young generation excludes its elders with. 

hicknhixville
hicknhixville

@valleynative @Dan_Moore @Gershwinstwin I don't know.  All those rednecks dancing with the black people to the hip hop karoake at the biker bar I was in last weekend didn't seem to think it was too scary.  And that was in the Dirty South too.  Maybe its only scary to the silk stocking types in the Ritlan burbs in the North.  Those are closer to the likes of the Buchanans and the other suckers Gatsby was luring into his house, I guess.

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

@Dan_Moore @valleynative @Gershwinstwin  I really liked the idea of "dubstep", so I consulted my son.  He says he thinks "hip-hop" would be his choice, because he personally thinks it's better party music and "it's still scary to most white people".  Just one data point, though.

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