Everyone knew Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby was going to be weird. Everyone knew Jay-Z was producing the soundtrack. And from the second "No Church in the Wild" struck up in the first trailer for next week's blockbuster, to the moment NPR started streaming the whole album the other day, to the reactions ever since from everyone who's listened to the 14 songs therein (groan-worthy will.iam, vintage Lana Del Rey, bouncey "Crazy in Love"), this much we have learned: This movie sounds different, and some of it doesn't sound right to everyone. All of it, most certainly, is not what you might expect from 1922 or the Gatsby we've come to know and love, even if it is true to form for Luhrmann, who gave us the time traveling soundtracks for Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! — and described his vision for the record to Jay-Z's site Life + Times as an effort to "translate the African-American music that came from the streets called hip-hop, and weave it into a jazz language." So how does the new Gatsby soundtrack sound to those who study that language for a living? We reached out to several jazz musicians and scholars for their take on the Lurhmann sonic experiment.
The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University
While Schull said that he's "not a fundamentalist about using exact music of the era," he didn't get any of "that atmosphere out of this" after he first listened to will.i.am's "Bang Bang" and Emeli Sandé's "Crazy in Love" cover with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. Though Shull likens the "Crazy in Love" track to a "version of Macbeth set in Gallipoli in World War I," he said the will.i.am track "doesn't add a modern cut on an older style because it was musically poorly executed." He added: "It was like hearing somebody read the Gettysburg Address over a background created by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. They have nothing to do with each other." Other tracks that have that profess to have that jazzy vibe, like Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody," struck Schull as nothing like the Jazz Age.
NYU Steinhardt Jazz Studies Director
In an email to the Wire, Schroeder characterized himself as a "purist who believes that soundtracks should match the periods that films are attempting to capture." He added: "There is a fine line between modernizing a classic novel and separating the period music that gives the audience a more accurate representation and feeling of the times. Can you imagine, for example, using soundtracks by Jay-Z, Q Tip or GoonRock to underscore Schindler's List?" Plus, in his opinion, the artists that were playing during the 20s and 30s were "just as outrageous, shocking and cutting edge as the modern day artists chosen for the Gatsby soundtrack."
Professor of Composition and Theory at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University
Gottschalk had some words for Luhrmann. In an email to the Wire, he explained that he finds Luhrmann's use of pop "disingenuous at best and jejeune at worst." He elaborated: "Disingenuous because film-makers often use hit music of the day to attract a secondary audience to their films, or to create an au courant perception to a subject that they are afraid may be of little interest to a popcorn-buying young public. Jejeune because his use of pop music seems to imply a sort of superiority inherent to the music that he (or his alter ego, Jay-Z, in this case) selects, as if saying that this music speaks more to the emotional and dramatic arc of the story than, perhaps, the period music might." (In a follow-up phone conversation, he said he thought the will.i.am song "sounded like somebody that doesn't know period-era jazz making stereotypical sounds and trying to pass it off.")
But Gottschalk also explained how Luhrmann basically has the wrong idea when it comes to Fitzgerald's use of music in his text. Fitzgerald is not referencing "African-American street music." Instead: "All the musical references provided in The Great Gatsby are to vaudeville type numbers popularized by such artists as Al Jolson, and written by well-trained Tin Pan Alley types like Gus Kahn. But even the hot dance bands of the period, such as Fletcher Henderson and Bix Beiderbecke, were composed of virtuoso musicians and were decidedly NOT of 'the street.' The social level portrayed in Gatsby was familiar with black music of the time primarily through white entertainers who pretended to bring such music to them in a socially acceptable form, such as Jolson's black-faced performances. I fail to see how anything that Luhrmann or his musical collaborators did sheds any light on this fact."
Kay, a jazz guitarist based in Los Angeles, came out in the soundtrack's defense—to a certain extent. In a phone conversation he told us that, for him, the Gatsby era is epitomized by George Gershwin's chord progressions in the song "I Got Rhythm." He thought there were a couple of songs on the soundtrack that "really utilized that," and cited will.i.am's "Bang Bang" and Bryan Ferry's "Love Is The Drug." As for will.i.am's contribution, Kay said: "He really made an effort to have it be thematically and musically relevant to that era and I thought that was a actually cool." And the soundtrack as a whole? Kay thinks you can make the case for it, since jazz was the pop music of its day. On the other hand, he said that there's no sense of improvisation, another element that makes jazz, well, jazz.