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Baz Luhrmann – The Great Gatsby [Finely Tuned #7]

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Based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby (2013) is a film directed by the capable Baz Luhrmann. In it, the ever-recurring, classical Hollywood themes of passion, longing and revenge are made more poignant with a soundtrack unlike any other in modern cinema. With an astounding level of collaboration; the album seeing the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, Florence Welsh (from Florence and the Machine), and Sia, this soundtrack could have become an out-of-place cacophony that confused the audience, but in Luhrmann’s careful hands, left them breathless.

In a true homage to the roaring 1920s or the ‘Jazz Age’, a rather rockstar term coined by Fitzgerald himself to describe the rapidly changing era where alcohol and parties were a-plenty, several of the songs in the soundtrack were laced with saxophone Jazz. In this time period, Jazz was underground music, almost the same way Hip-hop started out, and being so alternative, it must have felt dangerous, intoxicating, and undeniably sexy when heard for the first time. There is no better way to make the audience understand the significance of the ‘Jazz Age’ than by bridging that gap with Hip-hop. Thus, in seamlessly shifting different eras of music together, Baz’s genius was unveiled.

There are several layers to the soundtrack, with the traditional orchestral underscore directed by composer Craig Armstrong acting as base. His work is the glue that holds the story and its characters together, found in scenes of tension and build-up. This underscore is also complemented by the Bryan Ferry Jazz Orchestra, which lent an authentic 1920s feel to the traditional Hollywood score. The more overt, in-your-face layers are of course the songs, and with these the music becomes a character in the movie itself, woven into the storyline. Hidden away in the backdrop of several scenes, it either pushes emotion forward or draws it back just as needed.

Jay-Z’s $100 Bill and Beyoncé’s and André 3000’s Back to Black do well to describe Gatsby’s attachment to New York’s filthy underbelly, and his forbidden love to Daisy, by now a married woman, respectively. In $100 Bill, Jay-Z’s rap mingles with Gatsby’s whisperings about his many businesses, thoroughly bringing out the underground, dangerous feel that New York, for all its charm, must have had. Back to Black, initially written by the late Amy Winehouse, has nothing in common with the way its original creator intended it to be, apart from the lyrics. However, this does more good than harm, the heavy bass beat in the beginning an indicator of how things are slowly spiralling out of Gatsby’s control. It has a hypnotic rhythm to it, and mingling with the sporadic, outlandish tinkle of piano keys, becomes perhaps one of the best songs in the soundtrack.

In many ways, Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful and Florence Welsh’s Over the Love are similar; both are haunting powerhouses. Young and Beautiful in particular, is at first stripped down to its instrumental core in its introduction at a scene. A build-up is then created, with more and more layers being added until the viewers experience this ‘eureka’ moment when a certain powerful scene flashes on screen, and the full song, in all its heart-rending glory, is played. Both pieces are exquisitely written for the movie – Over the Love speaks of the ‘green light’, which Gatsby strived to reach. Welsh’s wide range of vocals creates a lament that truly adds to the protagonist’s plight, and can be fully appreciated by the audience.

Together, a lonesome piece written by The xx, is also performed in the same manner, and acts as a very fitting end to Gatsby’s sorry story.

Of course, the soundtrack would be incomplete without the party songs; will.i.am’s Bang Bang and Fergie, Q-tip, and Goon-Rock’s ironically named A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got) both act as a yell to the heavens, each with little raps of their own. However, both these songs, while fitting the party scenes extremely well, are easily forgotten, in the way one forgets the events of a night of excessive drinking.

Into the Past, written by Nero, serves as a passionate refrain with a heavy electronic drop that sends shivers down your back. Rather lewd, having Daisy’s deep breaths mixed into not only the intro song, but throughout, and the repeated words “I’ll follow you”, it describes Gatsby’s ambition to attain his true love, once and for all.

The soundtrack comes to a disheartening close with Sia’s Kill and Run. Even with Sia’s amazing vibrato vocals, the song fails to resonate, giving the impression that it was written almost as an afterthought.

The album, in blending all these sounds, helps create a modernism that does not separate the audience from the time period in which the film takes place, but allows them to understand what it would have been like, had these characters existed today. In this, it is safe to say that this iconic soundtrack is a roaring success, as the 1920s were.

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