Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Gatsby’ hears hip-hop where Fitzgerald heard jazz


Baz Luhrmann didn’t want to answer the question.

“I can’t really say it about myself,” he said. “But yes, I do.”

The Australian director behind this month’s hip-hop-inspired adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” had been asked if he thinks his movies — which in addition to “Gatsby” include 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” and 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” — use music differently than do most Hollywood pictures.

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“Everything I say already sounds pretentious,” he replied with a note of hesitation unusual for the voluble filmmaker. “But I do think — and other people will tell you — that my way is unique.”

A former theater director who returned to the stage for a 2002 Broadway mounting of “La Bohème,” Luhrmann, 50, uses music not simply as atmosphere or emotional punctuation but as a primary storytelling device, a means of putting the viewer in the world of his characters.

That’s true even (or especially) when the music doesn’t actually come from the world of his characters — think of what he tells us about fin de siècle sexuality by dropping the mid-’70s disco-funk classic “Lady Marmalade” into “Moulin Rouge!,” which takes place in 1899.

He’s even bolder in “The Great Gatsby,” setting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age account of American ambition to the sleekly seductive sound of 21st century pop. The film, opening May 10, features new songs by A-list artists including Andre 3000, Jack White, Florence + the Machine and Jay-Z, the last of whom served as an executive producer on both the movie and its soundtrack album, due out Tuesday.

Some of the music works to close the nearly 100-year gap separating the eras, as in a hot jazz-style version of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and’s “Bang Bang,” which juices a familiar bit of Jimmy Johnson stride piano with thumping club beats. Other tunes, such as Jay-Z’s hard-edged “100$ Bill,” draw thematic lines between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. “History don’t repeat itself,” the rapper observes, “It rhymes.”

“Jay was one of the first people to identify the aspirational aspect of the film,” said Luhrmann, who met Jay-Z through their mutual friend (and future “Gatsby” star) Leonardo DiCaprio. “He saw what the movie is about and understood how we could go from hearing traditional jazz in one moment to hip-hop in the next.” Added Anton Monsted, Luhrmann’s longtime music supervisor: “He’s like a decoder of culture.”

Though the director said Jay-Z was instrumental in honing the movie’s intricate blend of sounds — and, presumably, in attracting talent like Q-Tip and Lana Del Rey — Luhrmann knew what kind of music “Gatsby” would require at the outset.

“Very early on, working on the first draft of the screenplay with Craig Pearce, I made a decision to address this movie as though F. Scott Fitzgerald were making it,” he said. “And when he was creating the novel, he wasn’t nostalgic. He was a modernist — he was mad about cinema and other modern things, and he embraced them. And they influenced his writing.”

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Luhrmann is deeply familiar with the early jazz that Fitzgerald describes in “The Great Gatsby” (and which director Jack Clayton used in his 1974 film adaptation starring Robert Redford). “My stepfather had 14,000 78 [RPM records] from the period,” he explained with a laugh. “I know my Bix Beiderbecke. But no matter how much I like that music, it’s classical music now.” And classical music, he added, would fail to capture the “exploding” nature of the Roaring ‘20s for today’s audience.

“Gatsby was intoxicating everyone in New York with Champagne and music, drawing them into his Venus’ flytrap,” he said. “Now there’s another form of African American street music — hip-hop — that speaks in exactly the same way to our lives.”

The resulting marriage of sight and sound is especially powerful in the film’s early scenes, before we know much about Jay Gatsby beyond the orgiastic parties he throws at his Long Island mansion. Setting scenes of epic debauchery to songs like the Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s “Love Is the Drug” and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” (a previously released cut from their “Watch the Throne”), Luhrmann injects a note of menace into the festivities and restores some mystery to the character of Gatsby, who later in the movie describes his working life in language Jay-Z might appreciate: “I’ve been in several things — I was in the drug business and I was in the oil business,” he says. “But I’m not in either one now, you understand?”

As the film winds toward its tragic conclusion, the music goes softer and blearier, with ballads by Del Rey and the xx. Luhrmann said the former was particularly keen to take part, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the woozy glamour of her records. (Del Rey’s contribution is called “Young and Beautiful,” perhaps in a nod to Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned.”) “The moment Lana heard I was doing ‘Gatsby,’ she was sending me songs she’d recorded on her phone,” Luhrmann said.

At a time when many soundtracks are assembled from established material — call it the Quentin Tarantino model — the director and his partners have sprung for a lavish collection of mostly new music, one they’re promoting with nearly as much energy as the film. A 17-track vinyl edition is even due out this summer from White’s Third Man Records.

Yet albums no longer sell what they did in the days of “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!,” both of whose companion discs became multiplatinum commercial hits. And with many of the “Gatsby” songs already floating around online, it’s unclear if the set will entice younger listeners to buy what they can stream (or download) for free. Luhrmann said he doesn’t care.

“It wasn’t made to sell soundtracks,” he insisted. “It comes out of the movie. When I’m collaborating with Anton, it’s the same as when I’m working with Craig on the text or my wife [Catherine Martin] on the production design. The music runs parallel with telling the story; it’s not something layered on top.” Then Luhrmann laughed. “That said, you know ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is back on the chart, yeah?”