In Baz Luhrmann’s vision of The Great Gatsby he applies his characteristic visual and aural orgiastic flare to the landmark, classic F. Scott Fitzgerald story. The result is effective if predictable. I would argue that this is one of Baz Luhrmann’s best films because he has finally found a story that is complimented by, instead of confused with, the style that has come to define it. Films like “Romeo+Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” were headache inducing in the incongruity between subject matter and atmosphere. “The Great Gatsby” has found a way around that dilemma by insisting that the decadent visuals serve to match the decadent lifestyles of the characters. Their lives were a blur of meaningless hedonism that hid the dreary emptiness of it all (as a way of commenting on Summer movies in a very meta way, Baz Luhrmann has nailed it).
Oddly enough, the thing that is most talked about when addressing this new Gatsby entry, is not the movie itself but its soundtrack. That’s because, as was the case in Baz Luhrmann’s other films, The Great Gatsby has a sprinkling of modern rap and rock songs throughout. A discerning listener, or someone who has seen the trailer, or even a nondiscerning listener will realize that Jay Z songs figure prominently into the mix. Oh, that’s right, Jay Z is an executive producer! And was in charge of scoring the film! And has cease to be a human being and instead exists solely as a self-perpetuating promotional device!
In Kanye’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (remix)”, Jay Z raps that he isn’t a “business man”, he’s a “business, man” and no truer words have ever been spoken. Jay Z has worked in overdrive since his retirement from rapping (a few albums ago) to become a corporation of one. His product is Jay Z and it’s reach is far. While this isn’t new or original, and makes a lot of business sense, what is interesting is applying that brand in movies the same way we used to see (and bemoan) more traditional product placement.
There was a time when a movie audience could entertain themselves by finding all of the products that companies had paid a great deal of money to display prominently in a film. That still exists, of course, but a film’s soundtrack being bought wholesale for the sole intent of being a medium to expand brand recognition of an artist is different, and, I think, disconcerting.
Let me be clear, major musicians have been putting their songs onto soundtracks for years and no one can deny the power that getting onto a big film can have on a little known song or musician (Remember M.I.A.’s “Paper Airplanes” in the “Pineapple Express” soundtrack that you loved before you hated?), and artists have been commissioned to produce brand new material for an upcoming films soundtrack (a great example is “There Will Be Blood”, which had a soundtrack produced by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), or made as a sort of tribute to a particular band (Beatles in “Across the Universe”, Bob Dylan in “I’m not there”, etc.) but what this is is sheer advertising.
Luckily, I don’t think the film suffers too much from the glorified Jay Z commercials interspersed between the scenes from the beloved book but it does make for some head scratching scenes. One scene finds our characters crossing the Queens Burrough bridge and driving next to a car full of people singing and dancing to a Jay Z song that has nothing to do with the plot or ever addressed again. It’s just kinda there. At least I, Robot (perhaps the worst product placement offender in the history of film) had the decency to create an overly unnecessary contrivance for why the protagonist was covered head to toe in merchandise (the guy liked “retro” stuff!). The Great Gatsby was content to just throw it in there, no explanation needed.
What it does suggest is that, as movies require more and more money to fulfilled their exhaustive budgets, it’s looking like filmmakers are selling more and more of their finished products to the highest bidder in order to get it made at all. Some are turning to crowdsourcing, others are capitulating to demands from foreign markets, and now it looks like even the soundtrack is for sale. Jay Z has been described as a visionary (probably by himself, in one of his songs) and this is truly visionary. Movies have a way of enlarging the music that we put to them (and vice versa) and the idea of an artist doing this himself for pragmatic reasons is both incredibly financially smart, pragmatic and also kinda sad. But of course, financially smart and pragmatic ALWAYS override an sadness so I expect to see more of this in future. I can’t wait to see a remake of Gone With the Wind made up exclusively of One Direction ballads.