Appreciating the sheer spectacle of ‘The Great Gatsby’

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Yes, Baz Luhrmann’s kaleidoscopic interpretation of The Great Gatsby is jam-packed with pastiche, but nobody does the classics-deconstructed-to-the-Nth-degree thing better than our Baz.

Critics who preach the credibility of realist cinema might find fault with Luhrmann for his unabashed lack of ‘shooting things straight’ but even they might admit the guy has been clever to develop a genre all of his own, even if the sources of his films are often already-well-pillaged literature.

That said, the director has kept a lot of the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel intact, even holding onto great chunks of the original dialogue. Where he goes wrong is when he makes his characters repeat familiar lines relentlessly (one more “Ol’ Sport” from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby and I might have groaned). 

Though The Great Gatsby has been incorporated in high-school curriculums the world over for decades, for those who mucked about in English class, the gist of the story is this: a dude named Jay Gatsby – who comes from an impoverished background – encounters a rich drunk who teaches young Jay the ‘finer’ things in life. Jay meets a young beauty by name of Daisy (played by Carey Mulligan) whom he falls head over heels for, but she is insistent that the man she’s going to marry has plenty of money and security (enter Joel Edgerton’s bigoted Tom Buchanan). Eventually Jay manages to amass so much wealth that he’s throwing parties every weekend, inviting the who’s who of Long Island and Manhattan (as well as hundreds of fabulous nobodies). The only reason he’s throwing these shin-digs is to hopefully lure Daisy to one of them, where at he’ll confess his undying love for her.

Set in the hey-day of New York’s 1920s jazz scene, the story has a lot to pull from so far as historic context goes. North America was going through an economic boom following World War I; the prohibition of alcohol ironically lead to bootlegged booze being sold cheaper; faster music was catching on; and decadent parties, both underground and overground, were de rigueur.

Director Baz Luhrmann – always a fan of a great big bash – depicts this decadence in glorious colour and lavish mis-en-scene that, even while the movie as a whole stands out like a spoilt rich kid amid today’s tough economic climate, it does serve as a fun escape for viewers. Or, as narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) says, throws us into something “like an amusement park”.

Indeed, in the 3D version of the film, the viewer’s perspective sways and swerves as if on the biggest of theme park rides – occasionally to the point of sensing vertigo.

 

But it’s the soundtrack that is the ultimate star in the film, with Luhrmann luring Jay-Z in to manage the music (he’s also an executive producer of the movie). Not only does Jay-Z bring to the table a sound that perfectly blends the then and now (always a genius in the sampling department), the musician and business mogul practically embodies the character of the great Jay Gatsby. Note: poor guy makes it big; throws plenty of parties; raps about bling and booze; you get the picture…

If, cinematically, The Great Gatsby is one over-stylised spectacle of cut-and-pastiche, sonically, its soundtrack is the single smartest mash-up of retro and rap.

On one song, Bang Bang, rap artist will-I-am manages to merge elements of the Charleston with snippets of a Nancy Sinatra classic and a chorus of ‘bang, bang, bang’ that sounds like having come from the lips of Britney Spears.

Elsewhere on the soundtrack, Beyoncé covers Amy Winehouse; Emili Sandé covers Beyoncé; Lana Del Rey is fed through ProTools a dozen times; and the hippest of the hip are present: Gotye, Sia, Jack White, Florence & The Machine – it appears no hundred dollar bill was spared when it came to roping in the music industry’s latest and greatest.

All up, The Great Gatsby is an aural and visual delight that, while it mightn’t go down in the annals of cinema history as one of the most profound films of all-time, is certainly bound to become a (post)modern classic in itself.

See it for the grand spectacle that it is, and know to expect more artifice than original art. You’ll then appreciate it more than those realist putter-downers did.  

 

The Great Gatsby hits cinemas May 30. To view the trailer, click here.

The soundtrack Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film The Great Gatsby is out now through Universal Music, available on iTunes.