REVIEW: “Great Gatsby” Soundtrack Goes Bold

(Co-written with Linda Barsi)

Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby soundtrack is a sizzling chemistry experiment of vintage jazz and modern hip-hop. It’s full of unique sounds that are bound to cause some strong opinions. While we can’t say if the soundtrack is any indication of whether Gatsby will blow the minds of longtime Fitzgerald literary buffs or only satisfy movie patrons looking for a jazzy 1920s-style kickoff to summer, we’re pretty dang sure you’ll be rocking to these numbers soon, at the club and in your car.

The soundtrack, hitting stores and iTunes this Tuesday, boasts numerous hip-hop stars’ vocal talents with mashups and adaptations of modern classics such as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. This will surprise those who expect the soundtrack to match the painstakingly accurate period look of the film. What director Baz Luhrmann is aiming for, here, is to find modern equivalents to how the music of the 1920s felt to people of that time. Jazz was decadent and carefree and edgy. The modern equivalent, Luhrmann has decided, is hip-hop. “We – our audience – are living in the ‘hip-hop age’” Luhrmann says, “and want our viewers to feel the impact of modern-day music the way Fitzgerald did for the readers of his novel at the time of its publication.”

The song with perhaps the least vintage feel, 100$ Bill, is by the soundtrack’s executive producer himself – the one and only Jay-Z. He might seem like an curious choice, but considering Luhrmann’s goal in capturing the restless spirit of this turbulent tale, who could be better? At the song’s start, a soundbite from Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby – “life has got to be like this. It’s got to keep going up” – sets the tone as reverb takes over and Jay-Z cuts in. The sentiments of the song span time and space with “new heroines, new Marilyns,” prohibition, coalitions, world series and of course hundred dollar bills. Like an arrow shooting through glossy highs and heart-stopping lows, the song’s unrestful layers are enough to make a person feel for the rich and famous, old new – an apt preface for relating to this man Gatsby. Regardless of its deeper meaning, this song’s driving force makes for a killer song to strut into a room to.

The soundtrack’s other bumping party song is A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got). It may not intercut with DiCaprio’s voice, but of all the tracks, it does perhaps the best job of capturing the feel of the 1920s. Fergie’s crooning vocals evoke the old ghosts of the jazz age, but she dusts them off and gives them a new kind of spin. The driving basebeat locks it firmly in the modern club scene, even if Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) creeps in at times. We won’t be surprised if Hollywood DJs start slipping this one into their line-up.

Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is haunting – a mood Lana has mastered. This song is more for the hurting poets than the party-lovers. It captures the aching and unnerving tones beneath the glitter and feathers. Lana could very well be singing as Daisy Buchanan, whose marriage to the overbearing Tom is nothing like the earnest love that Gatsby offers her. The song is not exactly vintage, but like many of her songs, it has a certain timelessness. It’s also similar in feel to Over the Love by Florence + the Machine. If Lana speaks for Daisy, Florence seems to speak for Gatsby. The lyrics explicitly invoke one of Fitzgerald’s best images: she sings of a “green light in my eyes,” like the one Gatsby reaches for at the end of Daisy’s dock. The green light is Daisy, Gatsby’s dream, something that can be seen but never touched with “an ocean in the way” as Florence sings. While both songs don’t try anything drastically new with their sound, and could in fact be singles off the artists’ own albums, they directly refer to the literary themes in a way that makes Fitzgerald’s fans proud.

Although less ethereal,’s Bang Bang similarly coincides with the story thematically. This no nonsense ‘boy loves girl’ song is a top contender as a major party number. “My baby shot me down again with a love that goes bang bang,” sings. These lyrics have Gatsby’s point of view written all over it. “Love stupid, I know it, because I’m a fool in love,” and doesn’t he know it. Meanwhile, for those excited by the stranger combinations of today’s musical-hybrid-culture, this oddly addictive song is destined to be playing repeat on playlists this summer. A clever mashup of synthesized jazz and some delightfully twangy vocals, it all somehow works – even as Will scat sings in between lines like “that girl’s a killer from a gang.” Irreverent and boldly upbeat with ageless themes of love and loss, this song lines right up with Luhrmann’s big vision.

Other notable mentions on the soundtrack include a pair of covers – Crazy in Love by Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra and Back to Black by Beyoncé and André 3000. That’s right: Emeli Sandé singing a Beyoncé song while Beyoncé croons to an Amy Winehouse original. The Gatsby team does a great job with Crazy in Love. An upbeat and jazzy trumpet backs up Sandé’s vocals for a nicely balanced 1920s pop song fusion. However, some Amy Winehouse fans might be up-in-arms at Beyoncé and Andre covering Back to Black, only two years after the singer’s tragic passing. Some might criticize that, if they wanted to appropriately honor her memory, they should have used Winehouse’s own vocals. Still, the song nicely fits in with its peers on the soundtrack. Electric and yet somber, this evocatively melancholic number is kept driving with a metronomic pulse. It’s as if we’re right there with the main players, hearing time tick away.

Despite Gatsby’s similarities with Moulin Rouge – both period films and liberally laced with musical mashups – this latest project of Luhrmann’s is something truly unique. Juxtaposing two wildly different eras of music – 1920s flappers meet 21st century rappers – he’s pushing movie soundtrack boundaries to new levels. Perhaps, we’ll be sorely disappointed come screening time, but in this summer of threequels, the last thing anyone can say is that Luhrmann and his Gatsby team played it too safe.

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