F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an undisputed classic and Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation captures it perfectly. I had high hopes that Baz Luhrmann would do it equal justice. The trailers looked promising anyway.
I’ve never actually seen a Luhrmann film before. I’d heard of the successful musical romp Moulin Rouge! and Australiahas been on my list for awhile. But I’ve never been compelled enough to pick them up. Anyway, the guy has pleased critics before, so why not this time? Gatsby is a rich palette to work with after all.
About a week after the movie hit theaters and a week of talking about going to see it (and failing to follow through as I often do nowadays — “what’s the point? …too expensive… okay, we’ll wait for it to come out on Netflix!”), I came across the soundtrack on Spotify. I saw some big names and was anticipating some cool new songs thrown back to fit the era. What I heard was typical of something produced by Jay-z. Modern. Hip. Rhythmic. But how’s this going to fit into the movie?
And now that the movie’s on Netflix, I’ve got my answer. It doesn’t. The soundtrack is so distracting that it breaks the third wall and pulls me right out of the action. In fact, most of the movie plays like a bad music video. There’s a scene where a group of girls are singing and dancing in the background to a Beyonce song (I believe). Fine to set the mood, considering this is a VIP speakeasy we’re in, but the camera pans around the main action and zooms in on these performers so that they are nearly looking right at the viewer. I didn’t understand the importance.
There’s another scene in which Gatsby and Nick are driving into the city (I think it was Gatsby and Nick — there were so many scenes of people driving around aimlessly and recklessly without any valid context). The camera leaves their car and zooms into another car where a bunch of random people that never show up in the movie again are partying.
There was one song that fit perfectly, blending old and new, into the context of the movie so that it connected past and present. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful. It was the main theme of the movie it seemed since it was played about ten times throughout (it got old). But during one of the parties at Gatsby’s an old school jazz rendition played and I was blown away.
I’ve spent far too much time on the soundtrack. But I truly was disappointed. This could’ve been something really special. And as it stands, the soundtrack actually made the movie worse than it should have been.
It didn’t make it too much worse though. The writing was simply awful. Most of the story was told through the mouth of Nick Carraway. I mean actual exposition over the action. Someone telling me what’s happening in a movie. Yes, Nick, I can see that’s happening! Thank you. The rest of it felt like a series of montages. In fact, every action scene, every passage of time, was a montage. Mostly of people driving, or dancing, or throwing clothes about. I couldn’t stay interested. I was flat out bored.
For some reason that isn’t properly explained (the thin veneer of alcoholism is used), Nick is in a mental institute. When Nick can’t find the words to explain how he got there, his doctor tells him to write it all down if it’ll help! We never really find out. I’m guessing it was because of all the peer pressure and crazy happenings with Daisy, Gatsby, and Tom. Still, it didn’t fit.
The text that kept scrolling across the screen too, which did nothing but spell out Nick’s narrated exposition, was an even bigger distraction than the soundtrack! I didn’t understand the necessity. I guess Luhrmann really wanted to hit home the fact that this was originally a novel. Sadly, there are a host of tenth grade English teachers that are going to have a stack of papers that begin with, “The Great Gatsby by Nick Carraway…” as it is the last image we see in the film.
One thing Nick’s doc said that Luhrmann should’ve taken as advice for himself was something along the lines of: Write it down, Nick, don’t worry. Just get the story out. In the end no one has to see it. You could always burn it.
I couldn’t take interest in the characters at all. They all seemed like caricatures of archetypal gilded age personalities. The whole movie felt the a caricature of the novel in fact. There were times I wondered, is this serious? Is Luhrmann just poking fun at Fitzgerald? When Nick invites Daisy over so that her and Gatsby can meet again is a particularly good example of this. Drowned in a sea of flowers, Gatsby is made a fool — and not the fool in love, serious and sincere, he is in the novel. He’s more a scatter-brained bumbling fool, knocking things over and getting caught in the rain.
I guess it wasn’t all that bad. The visuals were interesting at least. They were bright, colorful, majestic even. Especially in the ritzy parts of town. The poorer parts were separated with a darker, more foreboding atmosphere. Still, they didn’t fit. They were better suited for Oz the Great and Powerful or Harry Potter. Too fantastic for a story of this type.
Obviously I was disappointed. Seriously Luhrmann, you got the story out. Now just burn it.