Last year, when Baz Luhrmann released a trailer for “The Great Gatsby” that featured the strains of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the purists panicked. It was bad enough, they argued, that he was shooting the thing in 3-D … now he’s scoring it like a summer blockbuster.
Of course, those same critics probably never bothered to consider Luhrmann’s previous films, particularly 1996′s “Romeo + Juliet” and 2001′s “Moulin Rouge!,” where he circumvented the constraints of time periods (and common sense) in order to breathe new life into old tales. He did so in many ways — setting “Romeo” in “Verona Beach,” basing “Moulin” on Bollywood — but his aspirations were most apparent (and audacious) on those films’ soundtracks, gleefully irreverent exercises in reinvention that had very little, if anything, to do with the films themselves. And yet, they both worked splendidly, matching the tone and feel of their respective pictures and actually spawning genuine hits, like the Cardigan’s “Lovefool” and the massive “Lady Marmalade,” which featured Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Pink and Missy Elliott.
On the “Gatsby” soundtrack, Luhrmann aims higher. Working with executive producer Jay-Z, he’s assembled yet another lineup of big-name stars — Jay, Beyonce, will.i.am, Fergie, Florence and the Machine, Lana Del Rey, Jack White, etc. — but the point doesn’t seem to be scoring hits, or rankling the traditionalists. Rather, he’s determined to re-invent the Jazz Age.
“[The idea] didn’t come from ‘Let’s make a great soundtrack, it came from Fitzgerald,’” Luhrmann explained to MTV News. “When he wrote that book, he was a modernist, he was in the moment, and the music of the moment was African-American street music called Jazz, and when he put Jazz music in Gatsby, everyone was like ‘What are you crazy? It’s a fad.’ And then he put Hit Parade songs, pop songs, the equivalent of Lana Del Rey singing a beautiful ballad.
“And [we tried to solve] the problem of ‘How do you reveal the book, but how do you make it feel the way it felt to read it in 1925?’” he continued. “If Fitzgerald coined the phrase ‘The Jazz Age,’ then I think we’re living in ‘The Hip Hop Age.’”
The parallels between Jazz and Hip Hop should be fairly obvious, so credit Luhrmann for moving beyond mere musicology to focus on songs that capture the spirit of the age. “No Church” lurches ominously over an establishing shot of 1920s Manhattan, a beehive of sin and greed. Jay’s solo contribution, “100$ Bill” is written from the perspective of a modern-day Gatsby, yet also makes nods to ideas like legacy and the pitfalls of wealth. The songs from Fergie (working with Q-Tip and GoonRock) will.i.am score some of “Gatsby’s” most salacious party scenes, and tellingly feature flourishes of swing and jazz.
Of course, the Jazz Age was followed by the Great Depression, the inevitable hangover to a decade’s worth of overindulgence. That looming collapse is also apparent on several “Gatsby” tracks, most notably the XX’s swooning “Together” and Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” Efforts from Florence and the Machine and Emeli Sande (who turns in a haunting cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”) follow in the same vein, and also hint at the sorrow hidden beneath the excess Fitzgerald details in his novel.
As a director, Luhrmann works overtime to create a fantastic world in “Gatsby,” one where nothing truly seems real. The colors are impossibly bright (or, alternately, incredibly dark), the costumes garish, the expanses of Gatsby’s mansion impressive and foreboding. In some ways, all of those ephemeral excesses swallow up the actual actors, which may be the point: After all, in Fitzgerald’s original work, the characters are merely set-pieces, pawns played by forces beyond their control, in situations of their own doing. But with his soundtrack, he’s struck the perfect balance between expressive and emotive, and created a character that doesn’t utter a single line, but says everything that needs to be said.