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The Great Gatsby's Soundtrack Doesn't Fit Its Message 

Wednesday, May 22 2013
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Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzergald's The Great Gatsby is surprisingly true to the original text. He is reverent to the plot, lifts dialogue from the book, and honors Fitzgerald's principal literary devices as well: automobiles as illustrations of wealth's recklessness, and the judgmental gaze of God symbolized by a bespectacled face on a billboard. But while Luhrmann's creation echoes Fitzergald's portrayal of the nouveau riche as self-absorbed wretches conflating money and power with love and invincibility, the contemporary soundtrack ultimately contradicts the themes of the film.

Although the xx, Jack White, and Gotye appear on the soundtrack, contributions from stars like Jay-Z, will.i.am, Beyoncé, and Fergie are the focus, appearing during enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby's lavish parties. "In our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop," Luhrmann said in a statement, explaining his insertion of contemporary music into an otherwise period-faithful film. But ironically, many of these artists' status-obsessed ambitions are the modern manifestation of exactly what Fitzgerald meant to criticize.

An obsession with fame and wealth is central to parts of today's pop music culture — notoriously so in the elite circles of rap, where artists far removed from life on the streets brag in song about ultra-chic labels and rarefied lifestyles. But the irresponsibility of 1920s wealth was not mirrored among the jazz musicians of the era. While the music undoubtedly soundtracked the period's thoughtless debauches, Duke Ellington didn't relish the privileges of wealth in song. Artists like Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and James P. Johnson (who wrote the tune from which the risqué 1920s dance the Charleston was named) honed their craft even while their skills were exploited by industry hangers-on. Indeed, Ellington's agent Irving Mills ensnared 45 percent of his income.

For a critic of American decadence in 2013, common luxury-rap themes of illicitly getting ahead, accumulating wealth, and harnessing power look like modern examples of what Fitzgerald portrayed as destructive and insidious in his characters. The irony could hardly be more potent than Jay-Z, the soundtrack's executive producer, explaining to the Hollywood Reporter that he "identified with the aspirations of the movie's title character, who mirrored the hip-hop fascination with money, power, violence, and sex." Oh? Gatsby is indeed obsessed with amenities, status, and power. Luhrmann aptly portrays this in a poignant scene of Gatsby showering his lost love Daisy Buchanan with fine clothes. But, as Jay-Z apparently fails to appreciate, Gatsby's faith in wealth is also his undoing. The rapper's identification with Gatsby backfires in the same way that the hip-hop-centric soundtrack backfires: The brand of ambition he symbolizes and espouses is basically what the story calls flawed.

What's more, the club anthems are simply distracting in the context of the film. Luhrmann's bold choice to feature star-studded tracks like Beyoncé and André 3000's cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" may grab attention and bolster soundtrack sales, but the flourishes of period-appropriate music work much better. Composer Craig Armstrong's underscore to the film subtly incorporates ethereal compositions that swell and yearn wonderfully. Bryan Ferry rouses his orchestra to contribute two tracks in traditional jazz style to excellent effect. There are just enough appropriate sounds to make viewers wonder what a little more homage to the jazz of the Jazz Age might have contributed to the film.

Instead, garish beats and production overcoat the most memorable scenes. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra crafted an entire album in 2012 entitled The Jazz Age, which boasts many dramatic, traditional arrangements more evocative than will.i.am.'s "Bang Bang." When the track's incessant, monotonous horn vamp appears during Gatsby's first party, it clashes so starkly with the period that the setting is momentarily forgotten. And when actual jazz combos are glimpsed onscreen during the electro anthems, they look ridiculous.

Of course, jazz was racy in the '20s and hip-hop is racy in 2013. One evolved from the other, and each is the popular black music of their respective age — but this justification is too simple. Given that status and material indulgence are the curse of The Great Gatsby's characters — a facet of the book dutifully reinforced by Luhrmann's adaptation — the soundtrack doesn't suit the film. Aside from confusing the economy and themes of hip-hop for those of 1920s jazz, a sonic backdrop of appropriate accompaniment would distract less, reflect Luhrmann's reverence to the original story, and lessen the cheap celebrity appeal. Gatsby himself isn't satisfied hosting star-studded galas. Luhrmann would've done well to follow those inclinations with the soundtrack to his film.

About The Author

Sam Lefebvre

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