Rap and ruin: The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Luhrmann puts a modern spin on The Great Gatsby, but stays true to the details of the novel, writes Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 9:24am

JAY-Z ON THE SOUNDTRACK of The Great Gatsby, the 3-D film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of obsessive love and American social divisions? Surely, that's an all-too-obvious attempt to make a period story appeal to younger cinema-goers?

Well, that's not entirely so. Although demographics certainly played a part, using rap to accompany Fitzgerald's depiction of the Jazz Age was a creative, rather than commercial, decision, says the film's director Baz Luhrmann.

The Australian filmmaker spent nine years ruminating on how to portray the novel on the big screen. While he wanted to remain true to the minutest details of the text, he decided the best way for audiences to experience the wild, visceral excitement of life in the Roaring Twenties was to give a contemporary edge to the soundtrack. Cue some very loud music by Jay-Z.

"If Fitzgerald was anything, he was a modernist," explains Luhrmann, who was first noticed for the pleasing Strictly Ballroom in 1992, and came to prominence in 2001 with exuberant extravaganza Moulin Rouge! "He put the popular music of his time in his novels. When he wrote Gatsby, he took African-American street music - jazz - and put it in there."

"I grew up with jazz, and I love it," continues Luhrmann, noting that it was Fitzgerald who coined the term "Jazz Age". "But now it's classic music, it's charming.

"I wanted to get the audience to feel like they would have felt reading the novel back in 1925. Then, the book felt immediate, it felt visceral, it felt pop cultural. I wanted to make watching my film feel that way. We are not now living in the jazz age, we are living in the hip hop age. So enter Jay-Z."

The Great Gatsby is today known as one of the great American texts. It's a coruscating attack on the fallacies of the American dream - the idea that there is no class system in the US, and that wealth is the sole marker of the social order - that is pegged to a tale of obsessive love. It shows up the rich as scurrilous and self-serving creatures who couldn't care less about the personal carnage they cause as they follow their hedonistic desires.

The story is told by would-be writer Nick Carraway, who befriends the ultra-wealthy socialite Jay Gatsby. The nouveau riche Gatsby throws extravagant parties at his Long Island mansion, but no one knows how he obtained his riches. As Carraway grows closer to Gatsby, he discovers that his new friend is unhappy, in spite of his massive fortune.

Gatsby is still in love with an old girlfriend, Daisy, now the wife of the wealthy Tom Buchanan, a scion of an established and moneyed family. It transpires that Gatsby amassed his vast wealth to win back Daisy, but he still is no match for the socially elite Buchanan clan.

"[Fitzgerald's book] is identified as the great American novel in many regards because it both celebrates, and is an indictment of, the American dream," says Luhrmann. "It's inspirational - a guy from nothing can make himself into his dream.

"But that dream can shatter like glass at the hands of Tom Buchanan's hard malice. That's because America, the land of the free, is a little freer for some than for others," he states.

Luhrmann's film is faithful to Fitzgerald's story and characters, while being inventive in its visual representation. The on-screen parties are massive, and fast cuts and 3-D effects break-up the shots to avoid any hint of a genteel period piece.

Luhrmann says he and his cast - which includes Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Carraway and Carey Mulligan as Daisy - went to great lengths to make sure everything that is in the novel remained in the film. "Baz was meticulous about staying true to the essence of the story," says DiCaprio.

"I did everything I could to investigate Fitzgerald's words and the imagery he created, to find out who Gatsby was, and to discover anything that was necessary for the character.

"We were meticulous about every stitch of clothing that Gatsby had, the way he wore his clothes, and his suits," continues DiCaprio, who donned a pale pink suit to play Jay Gatsby.

"Whatever people think, any decisions about this film came from a desire to reveal Scott Fitzgerald's book," says Luhrmann, who says he re-encountered the novel while travelling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad, on a trip he took to "debrief" himself from the stresses of filming the opulent Moulin Rouge! "I lived in Fitzgerald's book for several years; that's how deep my research was."

The Great Gatsby - a title Fitzgerald was never keen on - previously existed as Trimalchio, which featured more detailed descriptions of the characters. DiCaprio says this earlier draft - whose title refers to a character who works hard and achieves success in Roman writer Petronius' Satyricon - proved useful during the filmmaking process.

"What's interesting about Gatsby, the book, is what is left out," says DiCaprio, who first worked with Luhrmann in 1996, in Romeo + Juliet. "That's what makes Gatsby such a durable read. But Fitzgerald is more specific about the intentions of his characters in Trimalchio.

"That allowed us to find out exactly what he was doing in the parts of The Great Gatsby where he trailed off. We employed detective work to dramatise every nuance that Fitzgerald wrote."

The Great Gatsby was not a commercial success when it was published in 1925 because, Luhrmann thinks, it revealed negative aspects of American society that readers wanted to ignore. "It celebrates the American dream, but it is an indictment of it as well. I think it was considered a bit grubby at the time - it had the equivalent of one of the Kennedy clan sleeping with a girl who lives in a gas station in Harlem. They felt it was a sleazy book."

Luhrmann is not blind to the similarities between today's world and the 1920s. "Fitzgerald sensed a fundamental crack in the moral fabric of the 1920s, that things could not keep going up, up, up as they were. And that felt very relevant to the global crash of 2008. It felt like a parallel. This is what told me I had to do the film now, and do it this way," he says.


The Great Gatsby is screening now