Baz Luhrmann’s music in “The Great Gatsby” is an excellent look into the life of American culture in the 1920s. This sample essay explores the music used in the film based on the famous novel.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby
The mix of modern and period music in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby quite effectively makes the themes of the story relevant to modern society. The enormous gap between the rich and poor during the 1920’s is paralleled in our own contemporary culture, and Luhrmann’s use of music and other filmmaking techniques accentuates the comparison rather effectively. The materialism and ostentatious displays of wealth of the societal elites of the 1920’s are made to resonate with the audience through the use of modern music, which accentuates the parallels between the situation in the story and that of our current society. As we come to live in an increasingly socioeconomically stratified civilization the themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby become increasingly relevant once more, a trend powerfully illustrated through Luhrmann’s vision of the tale.
The Great Gatsby: The rich and poor
The theme most effectively illustrated in Luhrmann’s version of the novel is that of the obscene gulf between the lives of the rich and poor. In the novel we see in Nick’s description of Gatsby’s ostentatious lifestyle that
“On weekends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before” (Fitzgerald 30).
The contrast between Gatsby’s lavish parties and the methodical toiling of his employees underscores the enormous chasm between the lives of the wealthy and those living in poverty. The wealthy live a life of luxurious excess that is depicted in stark contrast to the unending labor of the working class. Luhrmann portrays this same theme, but uses musical techniques to make the parallels between the time period of the novel and modern society resonate more powerfully with the audience.
The film’s synthesis of period era and modern music is a highly effective means of conveying to the audience the corollaries between our contemporary society and that portrayed in the novel. As A.O. Scott declares in his review of the film for The New York Times, Luhrmann
“fuses the iconography of dressed-up ’20s decadence with the swagger of hip-hop high-end consumerism.”
This blend of generationally disparate cultural signifiers emphasizes to the audience the myriad similarities between modern society and the social and economic structure of the twenties. The use of modern music to score a period piece like The Great Gatsby is quite obviously a stylistic gamble, but in this case it succeeds in conveying the timeless aspects of the novel’s themes and creating a powerful ideological and emotional connection with the modern audience. However, while the musical choices in the film quite effectively convey the novel’s themes to a modern audience, certain stylistic choices fail to successfully articulate the themes of the novel, and may even detract from the overall relevance of the film.
Materialism in Gatsby
Another theme we see reflected in Luhrmann’s depiction of the work are the ostentatious and materialistic displays of wealth that define the novel. In the novel Fitzgerald describes the genesis of Gatsby’s obsession with materialism by saying that
“The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the wash-stand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace” (70).
As demonstrated by his mocking and mildly disgusted description of Gatsby’s commercialized worldview Fitzgerald clearly meant Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle to be a condemnation of the greedy and overblown lifestyles of the rich. Luhrmann’s film largely uses musical choices to drive home the correlation between the absurdity of the lifestyles of the wealthy and the relevance of this issue to our times.
Luhrmann’s use of modern music largely serves to emphasize the still, even increasingly, materialistic outlook of American society and how little things have changed in many ways since the publication of Fitzgerald’s novel. As Ann Powers states in her discussion of the film’s soundtrack for National Public Radio,
“Lurhmann enlisted Jay-Z’s help and announced that his movie’s music would recast hip-hop as the jazz of our boom-and-bust era.”
The oft-maligned c makes its incorporation into the film an obvious stylistic nod to the modern incarnation of the materialistic desires that consumed Jay Gatsby, and helps a new generation of audience members connect to the timeless themes of Fitzgerald’s classic novel. The musical choices in Luhrmann’s work are a direct modern representation of the themes so essential to the book.
The desire to amass absurd amounts of material goods is highly relevant to The Great Gatsby and is beautifully reflected in Luhrmann’s work. In one of the more absurd depictions of Gatsby’s love of physical possessions in the novel, Gatsby
“took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue” (Fitzgerald 65).
This depiction of Gatsby’s infatuation with the accumulation of material goods is a perfect example of why Luhrmann felt compelled to use hip-hop in the soundtrack as a modern day representation of the same impulses that drove Gatsby’s behavior. Modern hip-hop reflects the same tendencies as Gatsby so closely that it becomes an invaluable tool for conveying the intricacies of the novel to the current generation.
The Great Gatsby’s mainstream audience
While purist fans of the novel may view the hip-hop score as a bastardization of the original work, they fail to take into account the effect such stylistic techniques have on a mainstream audience. As Ann Powell states, Luhrmann
“is cinema’s boldest remixer, infusing familiar works with new rhythms that refresh their relevance…His style of twisting texts into the present may seem facile at first, but they’re extremely effective. Kids come for the hits and stay for the stories. English class suddenly gets fun for a whole new generation.”
Luhrmann’s musical choices may seem heavy-handed and unnecessary to literary scholars already familiar with the themes and message of the novel, but to a typical modern audience they provide an invaluable bridge between their world and that of the novel, and they are so fluidly and masterfully incorporated that even more academic viewers can marvel at their seamless incorporation into the story. While the use of such modern musical imagery to drive home the themes of the novel may strike some as gratuitous, it undeniably opens the world of the novel to a whole new demographic that would normally not be interested.
Unfortunately, the some view the film’s use of contemporary musical artists as largely ineffective and unnecessary in terms of its impact on the audience. As Dana Polan, professor of cinema studies at New York University, wrote in his review of the film, Luhrmann’s treatment of the source material
“renders scenes from the novel as so many flattened tableaux that both empty the story of substance and thereby capture something of the novel’s very fate as classic work frozen in time” (397).
In Polan’s view the emphasis on modern music and cinematographic techniques detracts from the more timeless aspects of sociological critique found in the novel and, while it may successfully engage a modern audience, does so at the expense of some of the intent and meaning of the original work. The difference between the effectiveness of the film’s musical choices and distracting qualities is indicative of the tightrope between using modern culture and technology to effectively enhance a work’s meaning and blurring the message with an overuse of anachronistic filmmaking choices.
However, part of the purpose of an adaptation is to put a unique spin on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale, and Luhrmann’s vision certainly succeeds on that account. Furthermore, as previously discussed, Luhrmann’s version of the story engages an entirely new generation and demographic in a manner that a more traditional interpretation certainly would not, and deserves credit for its boldness and revolutionary style.
In conclusion, Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby does a marvelous job of using modern musical choices to highlight and make conceivable the lives of what Fitzgerald referred to as the “remotely rich” and the parallels between the society that spawned them and our own (17). Luhrmann uses modern musical choices to emphasize the gluttony and heightened materialism of the wealthy and these stylistic choices serve to illustrate the parallels between the society of the twenties and that of the modern day.
Furthermore, Luhrmann’s use of conventional musical and technical choices in a period piece not only serves to draw parallels between the era of the novel and contemporary times, but also helps to engage new audiences and demographics that would likely be unserved and unmoved by a more conventional adaptation of the source material. Luhrmann’s vision of the novel is a bold and radical reworking of a classic literary achievement, and it succeeds on a number of levels in conveying and reworking the message of the original in a format more suitable for the modern age.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Scribner, 1925. Print.
Polan, Dana. “The ‘Great American Novel’ as Pop-up Book: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.” Adaptation 6.3 (2013): 397-399. Adaptation: Oxford Journals. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
Powers, Ann. “First Listen: Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film ‘The Great Gatsby’.”NPR. NPR, 2 May 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. .
Scott, A.O. . “Shimmying Off the Literary Mantle: ‘The Great Gatsby,’ Interpreted by Baz Luhrmann.” The New York Times. N.p., 9 May 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. .
Image credit. Warner Brothers Pictures