From the opening of the first trailer, it was evident that music was to play a major part in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Luhrmann’s past work; one of the stronger features of his most famous picture Moulin Rouge was its anachronistic soundtrack that meshed modern music with traditional styles such as cabaret and tango.
Something similar can be said of TGG. The establishing music in both the trailer and the movie comes not from a jazz composition of the 1920s, but Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne project. Adaptation purists used the film’s use of “No Church in the Wild” and Jay Z’s status as executive soundtrack producer as strikes against the film, but they’re actually smart moves. In Fitzgerald’s book and Luhrmann’s movie, Gatsby’s overblown New York parties aren’t about jazz, they’re about mindshattering wealth and absurd opulence. If The Great Gatsby was set in the 21st century, Gatsby’s DJ would be spinning remixes from Watch the Throne and the new Justin Timberlake album, and the luxurious tastelessness of the movie reflects that.
Like the movie, The Great Gatsby‘s soundtrack enlists big names that go for even bigger sounds. Whether the artist in question is bringing an original song or something from their back catalog, the tone is stylish, elegant, dark, and romantic. And there’s plenty of anachromism, as well; jazzy horns, jaunty pianos, and even an on the nose “Charleston” sample make their presence known among the more modern numbers.
A number of tracks have received heavy promotion, but they’re still satisfying on record. Lana Del Rey’s sweeping, utterly gorgeous, and dramatic ballad “Young and Beautiful” is a genuine standout, and one of her best songs (this is a good thing, especially given that you could make a drinking game out of how often it plays in the movie). Florence + the Machine bring “Over the Love”, a haunting, echo-laden, piano and drum heavy song that features some of Florence Welch’s trademark belting, and ends on a chant of “I can see the green light, I can see it in your eyes”. Jack White covered U2’s “Love is Blindness” a few years ago, and it’s still a serviceable cover that fits the tortured romance of the movie. “Together” by The xx runs a little long, but has an eerie atmosphere that works.
Jay Z steps out of the producer’s chair to spit on opener “100$ Bill”, and gives a spirited performance that manages to be self-referential, reference/sample the subject at hand, and still be a killer opener. Andre 3000 and Beyonce’s dubstep-tinged cover of “Back to Black” is a noble experiment, but ends up too strangulated and inconsequential to be successful. Yet it’s still preferable to “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)”, Fergie, Q Tip, and Goonrock’s offering that sounds like if David Guetta in hit-maker mode contributed to Moulin Rouge. The chorus is catchy, but not enough to justify a four minute runtime.
Things reach their nadir with, who else but, will.i.am, who inflicts his original song “Bang Bang” on a soundtrack that was otherwise moving at a good pace. “Bang Bang” features that painfully obvious “Charleston” sample I mentioned earlier, dropping it in between club beats, wailing synths, and abysmal verses. It’s an attempt to synthesize the jazz of the book and the music of now that falls flat. Oh, and will.i.am scats over the bridge. Gatsby’s bright yellow car isn’t as garish as this.
Much more successful at the past-meets-future tactic is Emeli Sande and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s jazzariffic cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love”. It’s fun, a little kooky, and sounds like it could have been in Bioshock Infinite. “Where the Wind Blows” by Coco O. doesn’t blend as seamlessly, but the soul vocals meet piano meet programmed drums song bounces along a little hookless, but not bad. Bryan Ferry’s own throwback sounding “Love Is the Drug” is almost a little too deliberate in its evocation of the past, but makes for a nice period song.
Much like the film itself, the soundtrack is a little too maximalist for its own good, and even some of the lesser quality songs get swept up in the pomp and size of the tent pole tracks. There are a few great songs that are worth revisiting, but there’s plenty to take or leave, and some real duds in the mix as well. One of the soundtracks’s saving graces, though, is that is sounds better taken as a whole than as parts, and despite its flaws, manages to be rewarding on every listen. Three and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: The Great Gatsby‘s soundtrack has the dramatic spectacle of the film, complete with its hits and misses. 3.5/5.