First Listen: Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film 'The Great Gatsby'
Back To Black
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One of the many trailers promoting Baz Lurhmann's film version of The Great Gatsby ends with Leo DiCaprio uttering a crucial line adapted from the original novel. "My life has got to be like this," he says, pointing a finger toward the sky. "It's got to keep going up." That extravagantly aspirational spirit is captured in the soundtrack to the film, executive-produced by the kingpin rapper Jay-Z and featuring a stunning array of hip-hop royals, pop champs and de rigueur alternative rockers. Distilling the essence of the Jazz Age though never completely reflecting it, this soundtrack is as much an event as is the film that inspired it.
How did the music in the original Great Gatsby feel to its characters and audience? The question is central to Lurhmann's latest high-end refurbishing of a thoroughly lived-in classic. The word feel is crucial. We know what the music F. Scott Fitzgerald chose sounds like, because his Jazz Age morality tale includes the names and even some lyrics of the songs that feed its momentum. Readers have compiled Fitzgerald's choices; scholars have analyzed them as expressions of modernist energy or sexual tension, or even as the music-loving author's own satirical stab at music criticism. Lurhmann could have easily commissioned updated versions of ducky numbers like "The Love Nest" and still accomplished his goal of connecting the dots between Jay Gatsby's moment and our own.
But that's not Lurhmann's way. He is cinema's boldest remixer, infusing familiar works with new rhythms that refresh their relevance (or, in the view of Baz haters, overwhelm and distort them). His version of Romeo and Juliet rethought rebellious young love for the moment when grunge collided with rave; in Moulin Rouge!, he brought Verdi's La Traviata into the era of the Now That's What I Call Music! compilations. His style of twisting texts into the present may seem facile at first, but they're extremely effective. Kids come for the hits and stay for the stories. English class suddenly gets fun for a whole new generation.
Whether Lurhmann's film does justice to Fitzgerald's essential work will become widely evident when the film opens on May 10. First, we have the film's soundtrack, which like Lurmann's previous ones both arises from within the film and stands separately from it. Some have wondered why, after Lurhmann enlisted Jay-Z's help and announced that his movie's music would recast hip-hop as the jazz of our boom-and-bust era, only a few rappers show up on the album. But just as Fitzgerald peppered his text with references to jazz-influenced pop songs to show how that music became a lingua franca, so this soundtrack aims to show how hip-hop now deeply informs rock, dance music and the Top 40.
On that level, the album succeeds. Florence + the Machine, The xx, Gotye, Lana Del Rey and Jack White (one artist represented by a previously released track, a pressure-cooker version of U2's ballad "Love is Blindness") are all rock innovators inspired in different ways by hip-hop's collage approach. The same is true of the R&B singers featured, from the currently ubiquitous Beyonce to newcomers Emeli Sande and Coco O. (of the Danish "electronic soul" duo Quadron). Hip-hop itself is represented by veteran experimentalists Q-Tip and Andre 3000 and multi-platinum genre violators will.i.am and Goonrock (producer of LMFAO's biggest hits). Jay-Z reserves the only space for straight-up rap; "100$ Bill" is a strong if typical autobiographical rumination on power and its costs, with Jay-Z comparing himself to everyone from Joseph Kennedy to Marvin Gaye to Albert Einstein.
He only glancingly compares himeself Jay Gatsby. That's interesting, not only because the association's so easy to make, but because most of the other tracks on the Gatsby soundtrack do present themselves as ruminations on the book and its impact. American Lit. teachers everywhere are probably silently thanking Lurhmann for providing them with yet another useful classroom tool; here's hoping they don't overlook this album, which unfolds like the term papers of a particularly gifted Fitzgerald seminar.
Considered this way, the songs break down into three categories: reflections on the book's plot and characters; invocations of the musical spirit (though never the letter) of the 1920s; and Lurhmann-like fusions of vintage and contemporary elements. As instantly involving music, the plot-driven songs do best. The jazz-inspired songs, however, are more musically adventurous. And though their happy vulgarity may be off-putting to more refined palates, the fusion numbers are the most successful in approaching that central question about how music felt in 1922.
Perhaps a certain sense of privilege leads the album's rockers to identify most closely with Jay Gatsby and his friends or enemies. It's no surprise, really, that 21st-century "It" girls Lana Del Rey, Sia, and Florence Welch all imagine themselves as Gatsby's fatal lover Daisy Buchanan, or that slick Gotye speaks in Gatsby's voice, or that White's angsty contribution reflects that protagonist's tortured soul. Often-pondered images from the book, like the famous green light or the murderous car crash that seals Gatsby's fate, startle anew in these young artists' hands. But the free-flowing musical experimentation of the 1920s is better invoked by the hip-hop cats and R&B dolls who give this soundtrack its fizz.
Give credit to will.i.am for paying tribute to Louis Armstrong in "Bang Bang," and to his old partner Fergie, who on her Q-Tip/Goonrock collaboration "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody" shows an awareness of how 1920s jazz babies actually sang. (She may have been directed to do so, since her song and will.i.am's are featured in the film's big party scenes.) Beyonce does shift her usual approach, in search of a way to perform "Back To Black" without too strongly invoking Amy Winehouse; but she gets stuck in the 1950s, sounding far more like a torch singer than a blues queen.
Is this a problem? Not really. Lurhmann's postmodernism has plenty of room for the juxtaposition of historic and current styles. And in fact, the soundtrack's most explicitly recombinant songs are the most intriguing. The simplicity of Coco O's approach, which has her singing blithely over what sounds like a looped player piano, gives a new spin to Bessie Smith's classic dialogues with the pianist James P. Johnson. Then there's Andre 3000's half of the "Back To Black" collaboration; the rapper sings in a dandyish snarl that's been off-putting to some, but his radical rearrangement of the song comes closer than anything else here to Lurhmann's own nearly surrealist aesthetic.
And finally, there's Bryan Ferry, the soundtrack's old gentleman, who's been playing at Lurhmann's game since Roxy Music started back at the dawn of the 1970s. Ferry's reworking of that band's "Love Is the Drug" in the spirit of crooners like Russ Columbo sounds straightforward at first, like the instrumental album he released earlier this year (and much of his solo work). Consider the lyrics of Roxy's biggest hit, though; singles bars and scoring would have never been mentioned in Gatsby's West Egg home. In Ferry's performance, the past infuses the present like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Jay Gatsby would have cherished the illusion.
Correction May 2, 2013
This essay previously stated that Baz Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge! was based on Puccini's La Boheme. It was actually based on Verdi's La Traviata.