Gatsby Soundtrack a Failure in Jazz/Hip-Hop Synthesis
By Alex Winkler
The Great Gatsby, the famous novel we are (for better or worse) forced to read in high school recently received a flashy, high-budget, Hollywood adaptation starring Leonardo Dicaprio. The director, Baz Luhrmann, has worked with dated texts (and Dicaprio) before in movies like Romeo + Juliet that use anachronistic music and settings to bring old-fashioned stories up to date with a fresh, modern perspective. As part of that modernization, Jay-Z produced the soundtrack for the film, selecting popular hits of the present day to portray the rebellious nature of a tipsy, Prohibition-era America.
Part of what keeps The Great Gatsby from being truly effective is how inconsistent the music is; it haphazardly alternates between 1920’s jazz and 2000’s hip-hop, failing entirely to concoct a tasteful blend of the two. The music of The Great Gatsby aimed to draw a parallel between the jazz and hip-hop eras. In other words, although the epitome of cool in our day may be a white-tuxedoed Jay-Z, a woman on either arm, The Great Gatsby tells us that Gatsby has all that and more.
The music for Gatsby ultimately falls short of integrating the new and old. In my opinion, it falls noticeably short of this ideal, to the point of provoking confusion and disappointment in several scenes. For instance, the first humongous party scene in Gatsby’s mansion exemplifies the sort of disjunct musical atmosphere we find throughout the film. Although the floor is flooded with party hoppers dressed in expertly-crafted 20’s period attire, the extras are grooving to tracks like “$100 Bill,” dancing to the beat of music that they couldn’t possibly be hearing, even mouthing the lyrics. Ditto when Nick Carraway gets drunk in a hotel room and Kanye West’s “Who Gon’ Stop Me” plays. These sorts of scenes — devoid of subtlety and any connection to the era in which the movie is set — draw the audience out of the film completely. Instead of painting the jazz era as a time period that is relatable and every bit as cool as the music of today, the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby seems to copy and paste a bit too many times, a bit too blithely, to remain consistent, as a work of art.
For all the possibilities of powerful interconnections between jazz and hip-hop, Gatsby too often settles for a less-than-masterful incorporation of popular music. Also, one can’t help but notice the abundance of tracks starring Jay-Z himself, or even his wife Beyoncé. If every single track were in its right place and were done in a way that blurred the lines between the 20’s and 2000’s, it wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s impossible to ignore the narcissistic tendencies of the soundtrack. I found myself in the theater picturing the face of Jay-Z, himself, instead of thinking about Nick Carraway. In several instances, the music did the exact opposite of what great film music ought to: it drew the audience out of the setting and mood of the scene.
Despite the times in which the music took away from the consistency of the film, there are several instances worth mentioning for their tasteful blending of musical styles. For one, the orchestral film score (not the borrowed soundtrack) was skillfully written by Craig Armstrong and, unlike the soundtrack, only enhanced the experience of the movie. One notable feature of the score is the consistent relationship between music and visual elements. For instance, every time the green light appears, the vibraphonist would use a bow on the key to produce a very distinctive tone. Every time we see the green light, Armstrong makes us feel as enticed and fascinated as Gatsby is about what lies on the other side of the lake. Even a few of the soundtrack songs successfully blended the music of old and new into a very cool, fresh approach. It was nearly a minute into Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love (sung by Emile Sande) that I realized the New Orleans-style rag was actually a renovated top-40 hit. Even the arrangement of “Love is the Drug” (performed by Lana del Rey and the Brian Ferry Orchestra) seamlessly blended into the 1920’s. These rare gems were the exception, though, and not the rule on the Gatsby soundtrack. It’s my guess that, as time passes, more and more viewers will notice the gaps in consistency between the screen and the soundtrack.