The first thing you need to know about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is that it’s Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is Luhrmann’s fifth film, preceded by 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, and 2008’s Australia. Luhrmann doesn’t shy away from his signature style in this film, even though it’s based on a novel that has been read by millions and was written by one of the most respected American authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald. This runs the risk of alienating some viewers, especially those who are particularly fond of the original novel, published in 1925. Luhrmann’s unique style covers every aspect of a film, from camera angles, to plot devices, to soundtracks. One of the most significant aspects of a Luhrmann film is the juxtaposition of old and new. Romeo + Juliet is set in present day, but retains Shakespeare’s original dialogue. Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby take place in 1899 and 1922 respectively, but contain contemporary music. The camera movements in Luhrmann’s films are distinctive, with shots that begin fast, arrive at an odd angle, and proceed fluently into the scene. His films are filled with vibrant colors (such as the Can-Can dancers’ dresses and Gatsby’s bright yellow automobile) and boisterous music, which enhance the stories and create dynamic viewing experiences.
The Great Gatsby takes place in New York in the summer of 1922. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate who works on Wall Street, and centers on his relationships with his cousin Daisy and the notorious Jay Gatsby. Tom Buchanan, an acquaintance of Nick’s from Yale, is married to Daisy and they are quite wealthy, living in Long Island’s East Egg village. Nick lives in a modest house directly across the bay in West Egg, next door to Gatsby’s mansion. Gatsby is known for his extravagant parties and eventually we learn the reason why he hosts so many of these shindigs. We also learn that Daisy and Gatsby met five years prior and that Gatsby hasn’t always been the man of grandeur that we know. The group takes various trips into New York City, driving through the “valley of ashes,” the mostly undeveloped stretch of land between Long Island and Manhattan.
This is where Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, lives and where The Great Gatsby’s iconic billboard of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is located. Fitzgerald’s rags to riches tale of affairs, bootlegging, parties, death, glitz and glamour is set against the backdrop of the post-WWI Roaring Twenties, the great Jazz Age that defined an era.
Luhrmann’s interpretation of this classic story stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom, Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan (a golfer and friend of Daisy’s), Isla Fisher as Myrtle, and Jason Clarke as George Wilson (Myrtle’s husband). For the most part, Luhrmann stays true to Fitzgerald’s original story. He does take a few artistic liberties with the plot, not in the interest of changing Fitzgerald’s original work, but instead to create a fully developed story for the audience’s viewing experience. (His tweak of the story’s climax is analogous to how he tweaked the end in Romeo + Juliet, for comparison.) Luhrmann provides The Great Gatsby a context, a reason for why Nick decides to recount his summer on Long Island; he widens Nick’s narration by providing a physical setting where he writes his story. In Luhrmann’s mind, Nick has ended up in a sanatorium and is battling alcoholism and depression years after his summer in West Egg. Nick discloses to the doctor that Gatsby had a great impression on him and the doctor urges him to write about his experiences for therapeutic purposes.
It’s clear that Luhrmann paid great attention to Fitzgerald’s text. Every major scene is included in the movie (not too surprising, as the novel is fairly short), with at least a nod and a wink given to the minor scenes, and much of the dialogue comes straight from the book. Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce, uses direct quotes throughout the film, which intertwine seamlessly with the new written-for-movie dialogue. One of the best features of the movie is Luhrmann’s ability to bring Fitzgerald’s words to life. His interpretation of even a simple sentence creates a delightful visual that enhances the viewing experience, while also providing insight into the meaning of the plot. One example comes from a moment in Nick and Daisy’s visit at Gatsby’s mansion. Nick writes, “[Gatsby] took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of seer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.” This sentence lent itself easily to a visual interpretation. The set was designed with a second story built around the perimeter of the room, with shelf-lined walls and a big bed in the center of the room. Gatsby stood on the second floor and tossed shirt after shirt onto Daisy who sat on the bed, attempting to catch them as they floated down. The screen is filled with colors and luxurious fabrics as Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” swells in the background. This scene captures a couple of the film’s aspects that make it so interesting.
The first is the film’s soundtrack. Like in Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann uses modern songs in a period piece and throughout the film we hear the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lana Del Ray, will.i.am, Fergie, Beyoncé, and Florence + The Machine, among others. This concept incorporates the new with the old, tying today’s viewers together with an 88-year-old story, demonstrating that the themes of Gatsby are still relevant decades later. We hear Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” as we’re introduced to the 1920s version of Manhattan, a grand and booming mecca of thrill and excitement, where Gatsby’s characters always find themselves when they want to escape real life. A scene when Nick and Gatsby prepare for a visit from Daisy for tea is accompanied by a cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” by Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra is featured a few times in the movie and is known for rearranging songs into the style of 1920s jazz, which helps tie in the original sound of the 1920s in with the contemporary songs that are featured. Other hints of the past are present, such as the line in Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got),” which goes “All these diamonds, trips around the world/Don’t mean a thing, if I ain’t your girl,” harkens back to the jazz standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
Whether or not the incorporation of current music worked for the film may simply depend on the particular viewer. The first time I saw the movie was at a 10 o’clock showing on a Tuesday night and the audience was comprised primarily of people around my age (relatively young) while my second viewing was on a Saturday night at 7pm. This audience did contain some younger people, but for the most part skewed older. One scene in the novel described a trip that Nick and Gatsby took into Manhattan. While crossing the Queensboro Bridge, “a limousine passed [them], driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negros, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” In the film, Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” accompanies this short sequence, matching modern hip-hop with old-time swagger. In my viewing with the younger crowd, everyone laughed at this scene. In my second viewing, practically no one laughed. Maybe the older audience didn’t appreciate this musical choice because they didn’t know the song, or perhaps they didn’t feel a connection between the hip-hop and the classic story.
In addition to embodying The Great Gatsby’s musical sense, the shirt-throwing scene is also an example of the film’s straight-forward take on the original novel. One reason why Fitzgerald’s prose has been so lauded over the years is because of its ambiguity. He dances around his characters’ actions and offers only enough description for the reader to surmise what’s actually happening. The film does not take on such a vague style. Some might feel the film is to literal, but in reality, what happens in the movie is what happens in the book, except for Luhrmann’s obvious artistic liberties. In the movie Daisy starts crying during that scene as Gatsby gleefully tosses shirts down onto her. He notices her tears and stops and Daisy says, “They’re such beautiful shirts. It makes me said because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.” She is clearly confused by what’s happening with Gatsby and masks her tears with superficial words about the shirts. This scene does not play out so literally in the novel, for her relationship with Gatsby may be the reason for her tears, or perhaps she really is just overwhelmed by the splendor of his clothing collection. By grounding the film in reality, Luhrmann allows the audience to appreciate the linear plot of the novel while taking in the visual and musical facets which he presents.
Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is opulent and grand, with magnificent parties and sweeping shots of New York, designed with brilliant colors and sounds that stimulate the senses. Like in Moulin Rouge!, the exterior shots are created to look almost, but not quite, realistic. This gives the film a dream-like quality, as if these characters are existing in their own world apart from anything else, which matches Nick’s remembering-the-faraway-past narration. Luhrmann captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s text while staying true to his personal style, bringing Gatsby’s world to life for a new generation. As the film comes to an end, Fitzgerald’s words are present while the imagery he created fills the screen. As the green light shines, the audience cannot help but to be silent, captivated by what they’ve just seen.
Things to consider:
- Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus, is out tomorrow!!
- Jay-Z will be releasing his next album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, on The 4th of July!
- Lauren Graham’s new novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe, is being turned into a TV show! Read more about it here.
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