Written by UTG critic Grace Duffy, Scene & Heard takes a look at the music that makes our favorite films so memorable. Whether it’s the 400-piece orchestra Christopher Nolan used for The Dark Knight, or the dozen or so bands that contributed to the soundtrack of Top Gun, there is no denying the impact music has on movies and this column hopes to highlight the best of the best.
The Great Gatsby seems to have become the first great tragedy of the summer movie season. Baz Luhrmann’s uproarious adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has been met with a phalanx of naysayers since its arrival in May, with more than a few dismissing it as all style and no substance. It’s hard to imagine what went wrong – the production boasted a stellar cast, a celebrated director, and the no-expense-spared gaudiness that underlines every theme and event in the novel itself. In particular, Luhrmann’s ability to marry old-world narratives to contemporary values and designs should have made him an ideal choice, as Gatsby – unlike many other classics – lends itself to reinterpretation. The novel fixates on the crumbling of the Jazz Age in 1920s America but it could be any decaying culture, its foundations being swept out from beneath it by the collision of the old aristocratic ways with a newfound moral freedom. Both book and film are extravagant and ravishing and beautiful, but the real appeal of the novel and that which has sustained it across generations is the pervasive sense of sadness. In often verbose but ever gorgeous words, Fitzgerald imparts a haunting spectacle of a desperate civilisation plagued by emptiness. It is rich and plentiful, but it has no heart. This vacuity is played out in the increasingly torrid relationships between the book’s characters – most specifically, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. As characters, you can’t really get a more damning or tragic representation of privilege, superficiality, and naivety. Gatsby is an opportunistic man who builds himself from humble beginnings only to quite literally throw it all away on the futile pursuit of a woman who has long since slipped through his fingers. Daisy is an odious personality who uses and abuses with almost heartless efficiency. What transpires between them isn’t so much a love story (more like the exact opposite) as a cautionary tale: it is in Gatsby’s inability to accept the present incarnation of Daisy, a cold and detached woman far removed from the willowy youth he once loved, that we glean the passage of seasons and the fall of an age. In his clinging to an ideal, he cannot see or cope with reality.
I actually feel that Luhrmann captured this element very well. The Great Gatsby may not be a love story, but Luhrmann and his leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, manage to channel the novel’s inherent poignancy and actually elicit sympathy for these wretched creatures. The soundtrack is a key player in this regard. It accompanies every scene and interaction with music that is as dashing and extravagant and sincerely felt as the story. There are tracks on here that rank among the most beautiful you may ever hear, slotted alongside a multitude of exquisite covers and reinterpretations.
Given Jay-Z’s appointment as producer for the album, it’s no surprise to find both one of his own tracks and an appearance by Beyoncé. The latter gets one of the masterpieces of the record in the form of a completely reimagined cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”, performed with André 3000. It’s barely recognisable from the original, all subdued and romanticised and dreamy, but with a distinctly darker twist. The hypnotic, detached air echoes the obsessive fixation that Gatsby has on Daisy. In its sultry, intoxicating beat, it seems to impart atmospheric cautions about recklessness and illicit feeling. It’s followed by “Young and Beautiful”, which is by far the most beautiful song on the soundtrack. That’s not something I ever envisaged myself saying about Lana del Rey, but she has truly captured something extraordinary in this song. There is something in the nostalgic, affectionate, almost fearful refrain of “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” that evinces the devastating sadness of Gatsby and Daisy’s past love. It’s not just in the inevitable fading of youth and beauty, but also in the fading of an ideal. These characters no longer love one another so much as the idea of one another, and Del Rey’s evocation of rapture and precocious affection is heartbreaking. Jack White’s cover of “Love Is Blindness” is note-perfect. It creates a mélange of exaggerated feeling and theatricality that’s exactly in keeping with the story’s wild excesses. Considering the rawness of the original – by U2, and in parts a response to the ending of The Edge’s marriage – it mightn’t immediately seem as though it’s in keeping with Gatsby’s dramatized portrait of feeling, but this is where White is an inspired choice. Ever the exalted player, his rendition brings out something more melodramatic and decadent, a hyper-realised version of the catharsis and pain that makes the original so affecting.
The soundtrack is bookended by these sadder tracks and dotted throughout with lines from the film. It opens moodily before erupting in a glitz of jazzy glamour, then slowly winds into subdued disbelief and tragedy. The party songs mix old and new adroitly. “Crazy in Love”, as performed by Emeli Sandé and the Bryan Ferry orchestra, is another complete reimagining of the original. Beyoncé’s 2003 hit is disassembled and reborn as a sleek, glamorous Jazz Age knock-off. will.i.am’s “Bang Bang” is a little too stylised for my tastes, as is Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody”, but these do offer decadent backing music for the parties.
The addition of “No Church in the Wild”, which scored the first trailer, brings a tough modernism to the piece. This endlessly arresting track offers a gritty, bruising contrast to the gushing dramatics elsewhere. Even with its mixing of samples and genres, it feels a lot more organic than the other songs and seems to highlight some of the grimmer elements in this fading world. There is an increasing awareness of these darker corners as the album progresses, as the realisation that things will not work out as planned begins to dawn on Gatsby. The final tracks on the soundtrack are noticeably more subdued and atmospheric, haunted by a grim sense of inevitability. “Together” by the xx is particularly sublime. A despairing and desperately sad track, it is caught and entangled in a moment of intense pain and disbelief, evoking how much Gatsby has become divorced from reality in his dogged refusal to give up on a happy ending. Similarly, “Into the Past” by Nero is a very existential piece. Heightened and electronic, it slips further into a fantastical realm and away from reality. The feelings here are synthetic – not quite authentic, but rather remembered and summoned and played out. There’s a whining synth track that echoes inner turmoil, and yet it’s all held stubbornly together in forced hope.
If anything, this luxurious soundtrack has been over-generous to its protagonists. Gatsby may not be a romance for the ages, but the songs selected here indulge it sincerely and lovingly. It is a pleasingly mixed bag that complements every aspect of what unfolds onscreen. In a world stricken by the gloomy spectre of inevitability, this soundtrack finds the romance, the urbane, and the glamour and offers them as a serenade to what might have been.