Soundtrack Studies: ‘The Great Gatsby’

Tuesday, March 4 by
"Hey, Old Sport," he proclaimed. "Thanks, Old Sport," he replied.  

The Great Gatsby, an enduring literary work, if not The Great American Novel, spawned a movie that was so ephemeral that most people had forgotten about it before it was even released. To take such an institution into turn it such a fleeting “blip” on the cultural radar (and similarly-sized one in the realm of film criticism) is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Then you think about what options Baz Luhrmann had when he decided to take his style of spectacle and surfaces and lay it atop one of the most cherished and resonant works of art this country has ever consumed. It was required reading in high school, which gives many moviegoers all the necessary credentials to run around after the film ends yelling, “The book was better.” Any adaptation in earnest leads down that road. People even did it with The Firm and Jurassic Park. They would have a field day with Gatsby.

So Luhrmann, even more so than he did with Romeo + Juliet, looked to subvert any and all expectations. All of them. ALL of them. He made a movie, that, when considered against its source material, was like comparing apples and elephants. He demonstrated hollowness not through complex character studies, but by hitting the audience with so much spectacle that they wouldn’t have the energy to look for or recognize substance if they wanted to.

And the Gatsby soundtrack took him about 40% of the way there. (I would say another 50% was done with set design and costuming, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Even the track listing reads as chaotic and overwhelming. Take a look:

Jay-Z. Jack White. Gotye. Gotye? GOTYE? Think about that. The biggest one-hit wonder of the 2010′s was put on a soundtrack (after his success) for a film that takes place in 1922 and serves as a timeless account of the American sensibility. Why would someone do that if they didn’t expect (hope?) that the film would be consumed and forgotten as quickly as possible?

They wouldn’t.

With the exception of Gotye, and probably Lana del Rey, all the artists here have achieved some form of legitimacy. Dare I say, even will.i.am carries some cultural significance with him. But the soundtrack doesn’t feature their best work, or even good work. It features their names. And parlays those names into more spectacle. An Andre 3000 and Beyonce duet is pretty bombastic. Having them do a cover is more so. Having them do an Amy Winehouse cover takes it a step further and makes a statement tantamount to someone putting a bucket on their head and slamming it repeatedly with a large spoon. It might not make sense, it’s not pleasing, but it’s plenty loud and forces you to wonder what the hell is going on.

The statement itself is immaterial, just like the statement the film makes. The Great Gatsby doesn’t aspire to re-tell the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, pick up where it left off, or set it in a different context. It attempts to leverage the Gatsby brand to seemingly no end. That is to say, “no purpose.” And its soundtrack leverages the brands of familiar artists, songs, and conventions (covers, remixes, and guest spots) to do the same thing, also with no end in sight.

Soundtrack Studies exists to give greater meaning, both in the context of a film and culture, to a collection of songs that were curated for (hopefully) a very specific purpose. The Great Gatsby soundtrack is painfully crafted and thoughtful, but the end to which it is seems to subvert much scrutiny. The impact is made on the track listing, (“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie? Really?) and in the dance sequences, but by the time it makes it to a playlist or an iPhone, its work has been done, and there’s little left.

In that regard, this soundtrack serves as the perfect accompaniment to the film. While a scoop of ice cream is a nice, deserved indulgence, both Gatsby and its soundtrack are the equivalent of eating a gallon while binge-watching The Killing. The act makes a statement, but not necessarily one you want to participate in, and almost certainly not one that you’d want to experience more than once. And that remains thematically consistent with the novel. Which I suppose means that Baz Luhrmann was an inspired choice. He’s someone who packages excess as the content itself.

Anyway…the track listing. That’s what we’re here to do. Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” is performed with an orchestra, and also without Beyonce. Jay-Z has a song called “100$ Bill,” because Jay-Z was probably going to write and perform that song regardless of his involvement in this film.

Jack White strays out of his comfort zone to give us excess in the form of a Led Zeppelin ripoff interpretation in his cover of U2‘s “Love is Blindness.” The xx don’t depart at all from their formula because they already traffic in the breathy excess of mood music that has been widely propagated since Zero 7′s “Waiting Line” from Garden State.

Lana del Rey continues to be completely unremarkable with her “Young and Beautiful,” but I’m sure her name next to a track called “Young and Beautiful” was all that was really required of her participation, so all that’s fine.

And the rest is in keeping with the theme, and similarly inconspicuous. What’s so interesting about this collection of music is that it if just one or two such songs existed here, they would have the opportunity to be remarkable. But in concert, they turn into a sort of white noise, just like staring at a sparkler loses its charm after about 30 seconds.

This soundtrack and this film both last for a lot longer than 30 seconds, but both were constructed to be basely amusing and almost instantly forgettable. And when you consider that this eminently forgettable work is based on a the cornerstone of American literature and the preeminent pop artists of that time, excess and waste become a virtue, which, as all our English teachers would smugly remind us, is sorta what Gatsby was all about.

Sooooo…nice work, Baz?

 

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