For music and film fans alike there are a handful of film-makers whose names are associated with stellar soundtracks. Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann, and Nicolas Winding Refn are just some of these directors who pay special care and attention when choosing the sonic background to their filmic visions.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is one of the biggest films of 2013 so far, while the soundtrack has been one of the most highly-anticipated soundtrack releases of recent times. Luhrmann teamed up with Jay-Z, who acted as an executive producer for both the album and the film, to translate the sensibilities of the Jazz Age into the musical equivalents of modern times through blending hip-hop with traditional jazz. The choice to soundtrack the film with contemporary music, similar to Coppola’s New Romantics-inspired interpretation for Marie Antoinette, is a risky and bold move, but one that is successful for the most part.
While Luhrmann and Jay-Z have been hyping the soundtrack as a major hip-hop release, the album unfortunately fails to deliver fully on this promise. Beyoncé, André 3000, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean all make appearances, bringing their impressive hip-hop credentials, but the number of tracks between them only amount to three, with only one of these being a completely new composition for the film. Luckily, this isn’t necessarily a failing, and does not damage the soundtrack as a whole. Luhrmann and Jay-Z also draw in other contemporary musical influences such as dub-step, rock, and electronica, to create a more complete modern accompaniment to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale.
The tracks on the album can be broken up into three categories: original tracks inspired by the novel and film, cover versions, and a handful of previously released material including gotye’s ‘Heart’s a Mess’ and the Jay-Z/Kanye West/Frank Ocean collaboration ‘No Church in the Wild’.
The album opens with Jay-Z’s ‘100$ Bill’; a slick and polished rap that packs in the references to The Great Gatsby, and the Jazz Age in general, and acts as the soundtracks lead hip-hop track. The tight verses are backed with a children’s choir, 20s jazz samples and snatches of dialogue from the film, which all serve to create an atmosphere and create tension regarding the film’s central conflict. It’s an excellent opening track and sets the tone for the entire album.
Beyoncé and André 3000 turn in a dub-step/hip-hop cover of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’. It’s a darkly sexy and ominous cover with hypnotic pulsing synths, tight percussion and a funky guitar riff, that ,controversially, I think is superior to the original.
This is the first of a number of covers featured on the soundtrack. Jack White covers the U2 classic ‘Love is Blindness’; with his fraught vocals echoing the film’s themes of love and death. Emeli Sandé and Bryan Ferry team up with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra for swing reinterpretations of two classics; with Sandé tackling Beyonce and Jay-Z’s ‘Crazy in Love’, while Bryan Ferry revisits his Roxy Music song ‘Love is the Drug’.
A trio of ballads from Lana Del Rey, The xx, and Florence + the Machine, serve as the emotional core of the album.
Whether you buy into Lana Del Rey’s Instagram Americana image or not, there’s no denying that in a superficial way she and Gatsby are a match made in heaven. ‘Young and Beautiful’ is a gorgeous, sweeping ballad sung from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan, and is one of the soundtrack’s definite highlights.
The xx evoke the desperation and hopelessness of the film’s central love story with their dark and sexy indie-pop ballad ‘Together’. Breathy vocals and a constant metronomic synth beat layered over strings pack this track with atmosphere.
Rounding out this trio is my personal highlight from the album – Florence + the Machine with their offering ‘Over the Love’. Another song written from Daisy’s perspective, it begins as a trembling piano ballad which builds with strings, keys, and percussion to Florence Welch’s powerful siren-like wail, and ends with a memorable chant which references the iconic ‘green light’.
Unfortunately the album is not without its low-points and failed experiments. Sia’s ‘Kill and Run’ and CocoO.’s ‘Where the Wind Blows’ are forgettable filler. will.i.am’s assault on good-taste continues with the horrific EDM track ‘Bang Bang’, a four minute-plus aural assault which blends ’20s dance-hall samples with electronica. Just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any worse, will.i.am attempts some cringe-worthy Louis Armstrong-style vocals. Avoid.
The Great Gatsby soundtrack is best enjoyed when presumption, cynicism and conventional sensibility are checked at the door. At its best it is a thrilling cross-section of contemporary artists and music influenced by Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, with only some minor fumbles along the way.