Reporting Shannon Carlin
Music is a big part of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with the 1922 novel showcasing the jazz-filled flapper parties Jay Gatsby throws at his house in the West Egg. The author coined the term the “Jazz Age” to talk about the renaissance of music and dance that was being ushered in during the ‘20s.
With the latest cinematic version of Fitzgerald’s classic—this one directed by Baz Luhrmann—hitting theaters today (May 10), Radio.com breaks down the Jay-Z-produced soundtrack through the eyes of Fitzgerald. Would the author have been a fan of the sound?
On the soundtrack, the rap mogul tries to combine the old and new, not unlike Luhrmann does in his films or even what Fitzgerald did with his writing. Jay-Z mixes Roaring Twenties-era horns with electronic beats, telling MTV he wanted the music to become another character in the film, just as it was in the book.
Jazz was dangerous, chaotic and exciting when it first hit the scene and the youth of America couldn’t get enough of it. Hip-hop had the same effect when the public heard it in the 1970s so it’s no coincidence the two styles have been melded together by Jay-Z in an effort to bring the Jazz Age into the 21st century.
The album starts off with Jay’s own contribution, “100$ Bills,” a straight-up hip-hop track that references Slick Rick, the 1929 Wall Street crash, 9/11 and Taylor Swift, sort of dissing her with the line, “Took that, Taylor Swift to a hundred f****** million, b****.” (Apparently, Team Kanye all the way.)
Beside the fact that poor Fitzgerald would have been confused about these future events Jay speaks of–not to mention the voice modulation going on (the talk box, the first voice changing equipment, wasn’t invented until the 1930s)–the song is straight from the 21st century. The closest thing they had to rap in the ’20s was the poetry of Langston Hughes, a studied poet who was still enrolled in New York’s Columbia University the year Fitzgerld’s book came out.
Other songs on the album do a better job of melding the two styles together like will.i.am on “Bang Bang.” Using Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson’s “Charleston” to keep the beat—a song, we’d like to point out, was actually released in 1923— will.i.am channels Louis Armstrong with his frog in the throat singing style to talk about making bootys drop. He would get Daisy and the rest of her friends dancing the Charleston, but would probably lose the flapper audience during the chorus- a little too EDM for the Roaring Twenties.
The same is true for Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)” featuring Q-Tip and GoonRock. An ode to “Don’t Mean A Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)”– a Duke Ellington standard from 1931, not the ’20s– Fergie skats her way through the song, which makes good use of ‘20s bandleader James Fletcher Hamilton’s ragtime rhythms. But the track unfortunately ditches the jazz style too soon to make room for GoonRock’s bloated house beats that would have probably blown out the speakers on more than a few AM radios.
Though Amy Winehouse’s dad might disagree, Beyoncé’s cover of the late singer’s “Back To Black” evokes the cabaret style of Bessie Smith, who was the biggest black performing artist of her time. Beyoncé slinks her way through the cover, which turns into a Vaudeville style scorcher. Over-enunciating every word in the chorus, she sings, “We only said goodbye with words/ I cried a hundred times/You go back to her/ And I go back to black,” portraying the pain of it all.
Gotye, The xx, Nero and Sia are a little too stuck in 2013 to pull off the Twenties style. Though, Lana Del Rey’s orchestral ballad “Young And Beautiful” could be an update of Fanny Brice’s 1922 hit, “My Man.” And Del Rey certainly could pull off finger waves.
Props also go to Florence Welch who uses her howl on “Over The Love” to reference the green light that Gatsby sees from his side of the island. Someone was paying attention in high school English.
But it’s Bryan Ferry and his orchestra that seamlessly updates the jazz style Fitzgerald was actually listening to.
On “Love Is The Drug,” Ferry’s 1975 song with Roxy Music becomes a big band jazz standard in the vein of Joe “King” Oliver, whose Creole Jazz Band included Louis Armstrong. He and Emeli Sande turn their cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” into something you could have seen at the cabaret just by adding a few blaring horns that channel the Middle Eastern flair of the “Sheik of Araby,” a song Fitzgerald references in chapter four of his novel.
In the end, Fitzgerald might have appreciated the creativity of Jay-Z’s soundtrack, which takes familiar sounds from the music. Fitzgerald loved to make something brand new. More likely though, the author would have been a little confused by Hov’s interpretation and wished Ferry had a bit more control over the final product.
As for the movie, well, we’re going to plead the fifth on whether F. Scott would have been impressed by Luhrmann’s interpretation.