Were the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” made in a vacuum, it would seem its supervisory was given a loose guideline to tip its hat to the trademarks and to put a subtle spin on the opulence of the “Gatsby” era. Operationally, it sounds like what a 1920s-themed sorority party looks like.
Luhrmann on “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet” proved adept at hand-selecting buzzy bands and theatrical covers to convey the same over-the-topness that his narrative adaptations do. They were hits vehicles. “The Great Gatsby,” on the other hand, is vehicular manslaughter, with several instances of forcing ‘20s music together with hip-hop and dance in ways that demean all genres. And that’s not to say they can’t combine – ask soundtrack contributor Q-Tip of jazz and hip-hop’s storied romance together.
The first perpetrator, though: will.i.am, a master of the copy-and-paste pathos of pop music-making, whose scatting over Louis loops and vapid blues-making “Bang Bang” will cause follicles to peel from skin like cheap fringe on a Forever 21 costume dress. His Black Eyed Peas cohort Fergie, whose strong pipes do a fine imitation of torch-bearers from the '20s, is nailed into a cheap coffin of “skeet-boddop-bop” by Goonrock on “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got).” Able-bodied Emeli Sande
does her best on Jay-Z
’s “Crazy in Love,” the Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s warped and cartoonish anthem that would be better suited to a 30-second commercial than a lurching 3-minute experiment. (Ferry with his Orchestra, unsurprisingly, do a much more linear spin on Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug,” as well.)
Speaking of the couple that encapsulates lavishishness of a spirited era, Bey and Hov both take turns on the set. Jay-Z’s “100$ Bill” slips on a sequined headband (sampled horns) with the copped stutter of A$AP Rocky, making it an OK-but-not-great addition from the film’s executive producer. The cover of Amy Winehouse’s lovers’-mourning, “Back to Black,” by Beyonce and Andre 3000 feels positively skeletal and dated on impact.
The struggle with now-ness is pertinent to one of the soundtrack’s few achievements. See Lana Del Rey, whose strengths as a personality and performer lie precisely with the lyrical DNA of a song like “Young and Beautiful.” She doesn’t state “You WILL still love me…” but asks the question “WILL you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” and arrives, trancelike, “I know you will” as she vapidly pines: “Oh that grace, oh that body / Oh that face makes me wanna party / He's my sun, he makes me shine like diamonds.”
It’s a song so willfully vacant, it’s practically satire (very, very beautiful satire); tracks like it plus Sia and Florence + The Machine’s turn at melodrama help to mold Luhrmann’s spin on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s subtle dig at the American Dream. But this is not created in a literary vacuum, it's a functioning soundtrack. Like missteps to the Charleston, the elegance of suggestion from its better songs is disrupted by its obnoxious neighbors. Maybe Tom Buchanan can relate.