Not in living memory has a movie soundtrack caused quite a stir. Lurhmann’s adaptation of “the great American novel” comes out this weekend, but before anyone has even had a chance to see Leonard DiCaprio throwing shirts at you in 3D or the breathtaking scene in which a man (presumably Tom Buchanan played by Joel Edgerton) glides across a sloping lawn playing polo, all the talk has been about the soundtrack. Lurhmann himself thanked Jay-Z for “nailing it”, whilst Bloomberg suggested he “ruined” it. The common consensus is thus: The xx, Lana Del Rey, Florence and Sia were all inspired picks from the director.
However, there is an unequivocal atmosphere which resonates from the record: when all is said and done, it just isn’t very good. There are moments – glimpses – of perfection. Jack White’s sprawling and raucous take on U2’s ‘Love Is Blindness’ is as explosive as anything else you will hear this year. Yet even that could be deemed a tad overwrought by the most meticulous of music critics. No, the real problem with the soundtrack is two-fold: the bludgeoning covers of pop songs that are perfectly fine to begin with, and the choice of those whom are doing the bludgeoning.
Lurhmann himself has stated that the music for the film had to be imperatively contemporary. You can see why: he wants to evoke the notion of grandeur which Fitzgerald depicts at Gatsby’s lavish parties. “In our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop” Lurhmann writes in the sleeve notes. He’s right, to an extent. However, by cherry-picking Emeli Sande and Fergie from the realm of the world’s most successful genre, he has overlooked acts who embody the spirit of the book much better.
Beyonce is an inspired choice but her re-working of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ is superfluous. In 2013, the original ‘Rehab’ still sounds contemporary. By attempting to make it more relevant for modern audiences is a redundant task. Go to any cocktail bar or wedding – ‘Rehab’ will be played. Beyonce herself is a choice who embodies some of the novel’s themes: the American dream, the green light at the end of the dock, the rising up from nothing.
Her spouse, Jay-Z, begins the record in suitably cocksure style. “My life’s gotta be like this, it’s gotta keep going up up up” DiCaprio states over a vintage hip-hop backing track (which, disappointingly, sounds like any other rap song ever). However, there’s a lingering sense of idleness regarding Lurhmann’s choice to craft the record with Jay-Z. Despite sharing the same name as the titular character and having a similar rags-to-riches story, Jay-Z conquered the world in a way Gatsby never did. Jay-Z has got the girl, the lifestyle, the White House comrade.
You can automatically assume what type of record you will be listening to by just briefly glancing down the back cover. Fergie, Nero, will.i.am, Emeli Sande. The record is a who’s-who of affluent superstars who are at the zenith of their chosen genre’s. In this sense, Lurhmann has done a wonderful job. Nick Carraway romanticises about Gatsby’s parties as “gleaming and dazzling”. This is packaged neatly into a record with auto-tune galore and a sense of epic splendour. Sadly, Lurhmann has missed the chance to characterize the novel’s most important character.
Gatsby is the archetypal dreamer: ready to shift his personality into something different at a moment’s notice, ready to fight until the death to try and get the girl, ready to straighten his back and show resounding loyalty towards those he holds dear. With The Great Gatsby soundtrack, Lurhmann does not depict this. He depicts the material, the artifice and the corporeal. “I was tempted to laugh every time he opened his mouth” Nick tells the reader about Tom Buchanan towards the end of Gatsby. Sadly, it’s easy to feel the same about some of the artists on display on the soundtrack. Perhaps, after years in the making, Lurhmann has personified the wrong character.
By James Daniel Rodger
Dance Yrself Clean