When maverick director Baz Luhrmann announced that he would be making a 3D-version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- premiering in the US today -- purists quickly voiced concern that the director of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge would turn the beloved novel into a garish, hyperkinetic mash-up of style of over substance, devoid of the source material's deep social subtext, lyrical narrative beauty, and class-oriented commentary. These concerns were further heightened when Luhrmann engaged rapper Jay-Z to produce the film's soundtrack, mixing modern hip-hop, R&B and rock cover songs with original jazz age sounds.
Ultimately, while Luhrmann's Gatsby certainly devotes key moments to that aforementioned garish hyperkineticism -- especially when it comes to the soundtrack -- it is also a smart and faithful adaptation. In fact, one of Luhrmann's main arguments in grounding the film's soundtrack in hip-hop was to tie in thematically with Fitzgerald's own long-discussed fascination with all things modern, new and exciting. After all, if jazz was employed in the original Gatsby as a means to impart the feel of daring, cutting-edge newness, then it makes sense to accent those elements in a modern adaptation through sounds that are daring and cutting edge right now. Similarly, Luhrmann also had reasons behind this choice as a filmmaker, hoping to engage today's viewers with music that they associate with today's party lifestyle, in order to give scenes the emotional impact on a viewer that these moments would have for the revelers of 1922 -- avoiding the feeling of quaintness that can accompany a party scene scored with completely period music, no matter how shocking or naughty it was at the time.
And Luhrmann certainly knows how to orchestrate these party scenes to perfection. Booming hip-hop beats rub up against squelching trumpets, as dancers dressed in vibrant, crystalline deco outfits gyrate to the jazzy melisma of a disembodied diva, all while Luhrmann's camera snakes its way through Gatsby's orgiastic shindig, staged in his opulent, maze-like castle of a home.
Part of the genius inherent in Luhrmann and Jay-Z's soundtrack is that the modern tunes are all based around authentic jazz tunes. The sample or base tune that you hear at the heart of every track registers to your eyes and ears as the music the various horn players, singers and dancers are actually performing in the story, while the contemporary hip-hop, rock and electronic dance sounds work laid on top of it, feels like part of the "score," an addition by the third person narrative, so that it doesn't trip your suspension of disbelief.
It also doesn't hurt that Luhrmann and Jay-Z have picked a cadre of artists and from Bryan Ferry, to The xx, to Fergie, to Florence + the Machine, who truly understand their role in the production -- especially in the case of Lana Del Rey, who delivers possibly the best song of her career. Much like he did with the song mash-ups in Moulin Rouge, albeit in a far less frenzied and more fittingly languid manner, Luhrmann's Gatsby soundtrack adds another layer of musical pop culture touchstones that work to pull the audience further into the emotional immediacy of the story, rather than distance them. It's a brilliant choice that, combined with composer Craig Armstrong's fluid orchestral score, adds yet another dimension to film's already eye-popping three.