Why Hip Hop works for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

Since seeing The Great Gatsby a few months ago and reading a variety of reviews of it I have been pondering why many people felt that Luhrmann’s use of hip hop did not work for the film, and why I think it did. I should note that this is entirely my own opinion- I have not studied film music and how and why it works, so this is just my argument for hip hop as a vital part of the sonic backdrop in The Great Gatsby.

I think it mostly comes down to your conceptions of the 1920s. The central fact here is that we all have different ideas about historical periods, and for the majority of movie-goers Gatsby was a film that fulfilled much of what they wanted to see, but when it comes to the sonic backdrop the audience quite likely went into the cinema expecting there to be a lot of 1920s jazz and a certain quintessential jazz sound that actually barely existed in the story’s setting of 1922.

The disjuncture between the overt period setting of Gatsby, the audience (and critic) expectations and the direction and themes that Luhrmann chose is at the centre of this criticism. However I feel that the sonic choices that Luhrmann made actually fit the intention of the film better than a wholly 1920s jazz backdrop (either original or recreated) would have. The resolution to this disjuncture lies in the themes of the novel and Luhrmann’s interpretation of those themes.

What Fitzgerald is writing about in Gatsby is modernity, and the clash of old and new (values, morals, money, etc)- this ties in to how Nick, Gatsby, and other characters see events, and how they interpret them. This ties directly into how the story becomes interpreted when adapted to film. Now, Luhrmann could have used a lot more 1920s jazz in the film- and many people think he should have- but does 1920s jazz sound modern to twenty-first century ears? Personally I think it’s a continually fresh and interesting sound, but I don’t believe that it’s modern. It’s also tied into a lot of social and historical constructs, and most importantly, our ideas about the sounds of the 1920s is tied into our own baggage and how we interpret 1920s (As a side note- this includes my own baggage that comes from having studied the period and knowing that only one of the pieces of jazz used in the film had actually been recorded by the story’s time period of 1922). The sounds that were new in the 1920s are now either commonplace (motorcars, vacuum cleaners, etc) or non-existent (the scratchy sound that acetate makes against a gramophone needle). This being so, how can we identify 1920s music as being modern?

I believe that Luhrmann deliberately placed the accent on modernity to try and give the audience an idea about how it would have seemed at the time for Fitzgerald as he was writing the novel. The world that we see in the film is not ‘period’, it is not olde-worlde 1920s with quaint music, liberation, and tropes about flappers and the loosening of morals. Rather Lurhmann focuses on the modernity of the 1920s in all its aspects. This, I believe, is an important factor in Luhrmann’s decision to use hip hop as the main sonic material for the sound track. What better music to represent modernity that the one that has current purchase in our society? Also, what better music to represent the tropes portrayed in Gatsby?

Think of it this way- jazz was to the 1920s what hip hop is to us today, but in representing the modernity of the 1920s if Lurhmann had chosen to have an all jazz sound track- and more importantly an all 1920s jazz sound track- some of these ideas and arguments might have been lost to the audience because of our preconceptions about how the 1920s sounded and what that meant. It is difficult for us to conceive of the 1920s as being modern- what we have now colours that perception of modernity. What Luhrmann was attempting to capture however, wasn’t just the look of the 1920s, but the sense that this was the utmost in modernity- the cutting edge of fashion, technology, conspicuous consumption, manners, and decadence. Gatsby wasn’t created to be a period piece it was created to be a film that is as current as any film set in the twenty-first century. I believe that this last point is one that does not always get picked up on- and again I think this is because of our preconceptions of what the 1920s should look and sound like.

If you examine the modern songs (especially the hip hop) used in the film and the commercial soundtrack you’ll notice that they have been chosen very specifically to reflect the characters’ dispositions, motivations and the themes of modernity (and the good and bad that comes with that), the choices that the characters make in the course of the story (and the fall out), and conspicuous consumption. The soundtrack reflects the shape of the narrative, the consequences of actions, and the overall darkness of the story. If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll recall that although it appears to be a story of gay times and parties (to use 1920s parlance), it is in fact quite dark and desperate- think of Gatsby’s machinations in an attempt to be worthy of Daisy, and the end where Nick describes Daisy and Tom as being careless, thoughtless people. These are themes that run through many hip hop compositions- while the overt tone is often one of the high-life and parties there is frequently another layer in their narrative that delves into the darker aspects of life, love, and death. These layers provide a close sonic link to the story of Gatsby one that resonates throughout Lurhmann’s film interpretation.

This is why to me at least, hip hop works as an ideal sonic backdrop in the film. The ideas about the changing world- the development of modern society and morals are essentially identical to the ones that society continues to grapple with, all one has to do is change the accent (for example gramophone and radio for internet and MP3s, Josephine Baker for Beyoncé) and you have the same arguments about how technology is affecting the world, how entertainers affect people’s behaviour, changing attitudes towards empowerment, sexuality, and so on. In Gatsby the use of hip hop represents these same concerns in the twenty-first century the way jazz did in the 1920s.

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