What’s Eating Jay Gatsby?: Music and Spectacle in a Jazz Age

By Michael W. Harris

I feel the need to begin this review with a disclaimer: I have not read The Great Gatsby in fourteen years.  I know this figure so precisely because the first and only time I ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was in the summer of 1999, the summer after I graduated from high school.  Now, this might seem strange since Gatsby is usually a book one reads while IN high school, but alas none of my classes did.  But, being the overachieving nerd that I am, that summer, while attending Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC, I set myself the task of assembling and completing my own summer reading list of novels that I felt I should have read in high school.  This list included: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World (and Revisited since they were collected together in the edition I bought), Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kerouac’s On the Road, Heller’s Catch-22, Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Gatsby, and the one I never finished, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I also started reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, but hated his writing style so much that I just set aside the book.[1]  There was also a fair bit of Vonnegut thrown in since I had fallen in love with his books about a year earlier and was devouring as much of his writings as I could.

I recount my reading of this summer so completely to demonstrate two things: 1) It was a very profound summer for me in terms of literature, one that still affects my thinking to this day.  It was also the last time I ever attempted such a project and read so much in such a short amount of time (except for the semester during my PhD when I reread and finally finished all of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels).  And 2) prior to reacquainting myself with Gatsby via John Green’s excellent two part Crash Course video on the book to prepare myself for Baz Luhrmann’s new film, the only things I remembered about the novel were: a flashing green light, a billboard for an eye doctor that creepily watched over the events, and a pervading sense of death.[2]  In other words, most of the subtleties of Gatsby were lost on me in what was a very packed summer of reading and playing my bassoon.

So this roundabout exposition on my literary encounters in my post-secondary education summer prior to university is to say that I went into viewing Luhrmann’s latest cinematic spectacle with an almost clean Gatsby slate.  I knew the basics of the important symbols, John Green’s videos gave me a more firm grasp on what to look for and the big themes of the novel, but I was, and still am, unaware of the finer points of plot so this review will not consist of the standard “but he left such-and-such out and that is a major event!”  What I will discuss here is Baz Luhrmann’s visual-sonic spectacle that occurs in all of his films, but focusing on how he uses it in Gatsby to evoke Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age and make it relevant to our modern existence.

If you’ve ever seen a Luhrmann film you are mostly likely acquainted with his idea of spectacle.  The films of Baz are swirling mosaics of bright colors, over-the-top dialogue, and raucous music.  His is a heightened, stylized cinema that seems out of place in an American Hollywood that, despite the widescreen, special effects extravaganzas that populate our box office, still strives to achieve a sense of grounded reality.  That despite all the spectacle, what were are seeing could actually happen.  Luhrmann, however, comes from the school of spectacle; the more fantastical the better.  In many ways, his films are almost like those of many Japanese directors who go for very stylized actions and movements, creating a mythical past that never really existed, a tradition found in Kabuki theatre which is built on stylized gestures and augmented reality, all with music.  Even when American directors are recreating a mythical past, as in the Westerns of John Ford, we still yearn to make that past seem as real and authentic as possible.

But the fact that Baz Luhrmann directs in such a way, constructs elaborate cinematic spectacles all set to a booming, anachronistic soundtrack, as he did previously with Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet (though not in Australia, at least as far as I remember), might just make him the perfect man to adapt Gatsby.  For in Jay Gatsby, you have a man who wants nothing more than to “repeat the past,” but doesn’t realize that not only can you never repeat it, but also what we remember of the past is usually colored by our own desires for how we wish things to have been.  So as Luhrmann reinterprets our past, be it turn of the century Paris or New York of the ‘20s, he imagines it as we would like to remember it, in all its glitz, glamour, and glory.  Our mythological past that never truly existed, just like Gatsby’s yearning for the ideal and hope of the green light.  The “orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us” that is also our hope that our past was not wasted and can be reclaimed.

Likewise, though, Luhrmann has been criticized for doing this, for inserting our modern music into films that are essentially period pieces.  Amidst the sumptuous production and costume design that do such a wonderful job of recreating the feeling of a past (though with a usually much brighter color palette), you have the songs of Elton John and the Police (in Moulin Rouge) and hip-hop tracks produced by Jay-Z and featuring a who’s who of musical talent.  So what is Baz trying to do with such musical design?  It is obvious from his films that he is just as fascinated by music as he is the visuals in his film, but so often critics are as equally baffled by the music as they are wowed by what he captures on film.

The simple answer is that he is trying to evoke the same feeling in a contemporary audience that an actual audience member at the Moulin Rouge or at a Gatsby party might have felt when hearing the music that would have been performed there.  In the case of Gatsby, Jazz was just starting to come of age in places like New York and Chicago after migrating north from its home in New Orleans.  It was a far cry from what we know as “jazz” today, with its refined solos and acceptance among the masses as seen with high school jazz bands and college programs devoted to “jazz studies.”  No, in the ‘20s it was a raucous and dangerous music, one played by African-Americans who were still seen as an inferior race by many white Americans, especially in the South where Jim Crow laws were still in full effect and Plessy vs. Ferguson was the law of the land, not Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education.

Jazz was a dangerous music that would lead proper society down a dangerous road of sex and debauchery, a perfect music to accompany an age where alcohol was technically illegal but more readily available for those in the know and had many unintended consequences.[3]  If there was an equivalent music today, it might be the hip-hop of Jay-Z and others (though I would argue that that parallel was more apt in the ‘80s and ‘90s, not today where it is much more accepted and even studied in the academy), and the film’s blending of Jay-Z’s hip-hop tracks with the 1920s jazz recreations by the Brian Ferry Orchestra does powerfully evoke the spirit of the era for a 2013 audience.

But in doing so, Lurhmann is doing Fitzgerald one better by matching up Gatsby’s world with our own, which is what so many teachers do while discussing the book.  The excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s that led to the Great Depression are the same as those seen in the 2000s that led to our so-called Great Recession; a wild grab for money and power and influence that crashed our worldwide economic system, with those new rich living lives of excess that might make even Fitzgerald’s characters blush.  But the party eventually ends, as it did for Gatsby…the music stopped.

Which brings me to my favorite part of the music in The Great Gatsby: the haunting orchestral theme that first appears in an arrangement by Brian Ferry over the opening titles which then slides into an orchestral version as the green light first appears.  To me, this tune is the embodiment of the “pervading sense of death” that haunted my one and only reading of the book.  It is a prophecy of the downfall of Gatsby that is captured by Luhrmann in his chilling winter scenes at the hospital where Nick Carraway has gone to recover from his New York lifestyle.  It is a reminder of what ends greet us when we follow the path of Gatsby.  But the great question of the novel is: where was Gatsby’s flaw?  Many things contributed to his being shot dead in his pool, being used by him for the first time, but which was his greatest and most fatal?  That is the question that haunts me now, for in Gatsby’s flaw, I also see elements of my own.

GatsbyOkay, I don’t want to leave things on such a down note, so I will leave you with one of the film’s great musical moments: Gatsby’s reveal.  Set to a wonderfully done arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue,[4] and with an overwhelming amount of fireworks, we finally see Gatsby, the mysterious man who had floated throughout the book and film’s opening segments.  The synergy between camerawork, production design, and music is a singular achievement in filmmaking and is worth the rental fee just to see.  And if you are not wowed by that scene…well then, you better check your pulse because you just might be dead.

And that’s the God’s honest truth, Old Sport.

[1] I’ll admit it, I have a hard time reading most English literature written prior to around 1910 (or anything written by Hemingway, really).  I consider it a defect in my reading, but one that I am keenly aware of.  This is why I’ve never read much Mark Twain, despite being from Missouri, and why I’ve never gotten into H.G. Wells despite being a huge science fiction nerd.  Sorry, Dr. Carter, but that is why I never finished reading Pride and Prejudice  or A Farewell to Arms in your classes, but you are still one of my favorite teachers!

[2] And by the way, I could not more highly recommend pretty much all the videos that John Green is a part of on YouTube.  He is funny, engaging, and most importantly, a great teacher.  And to think, these are the things that he does when he is not writing award winning young adult novels!  Seriously folks, have your children read his books…not Twilight.

[3] Such as political corruption and the growth of organized crime.

[4] Though Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in 1924, two years after the book’s 1922 setting, but in reality the year before Fitzgerald wrote the book in 1925, but I digress.

2 thoughts on “What’s Eating Jay Gatsby?: Music and Spectacle in a Jazz Age

  1. And I totally agree with you about the Gatsby reveal making it totally worth it to see the movie. I LOVED THAT PART! Funny time frame for the Gershwin though. Thanks, Your Nerdness 🙂

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