Friday, May 10, 2013

Music from Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby": Soundtrack Review

"I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others - poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for the solitary restaurant dinner - young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Again at eight o’clock, when the dark lanes of the Forties were five deep with throbbing taxi cabs, bound for the theatre district, I felt a sinking in my heart. Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gaiety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with the book The Great Gatsby, therefore, this week and all of the hype surrounding what will inevitably be an incredible theatrical debut in the form of Baz Luhrmann's star-studded film, has been very exciting. The above quote doesn't get analyzed on forums or written about often - understandably, considering the hundreds of other genius literary moments in the novel - but, I've always found it to be a special one that seems to capture all of the feelings of thriving, passion and loneliness that I would imagine the roaring 20s held. And, it accurately depicts the dueling tones of The Great Gatsby's pages: success and demise, innocence and guilt, romance and longing.

This week, I re-read that favourite novel, and devoted a large chunk of time to listening to the unspeakably stacked Deluxe Edition soundtrack, produced by Jay-Z.

The highly anticipated soundtrack could have (and should have) been so much better. Some of the biggest names are the ones whose contributions fell flat. Although there are a few satisfactory sound cushions early into the collection - including distracting vampy balladry from Lana Del Rey, who was made for a film soundtrack like this, and Beyonce and Andre 3000's sexy spin on "Back to Black" - they almost aren't enough to recover from the disappointment of the soundtrack's first song, from the producer himself. Jay-Z's sleepy attempt to rhyme bits of the 20s storyline sounds forced, and the snippets of film chatter and waltzy instrumental soundbytes are, sadly, the only things that kept me listening intently for the entirety of the song.

After the compilation quickly dips in to some shallow, electro-infused dance floor contributions from the likes of various Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO members, a lackluster "Crazy in Love" ragtime cover flops, having just heard the real Queen Bey six songs back. I've always loved that Luhrmann decorates his whacky, modernized remakes with contemporary songs - and was actually excited for the film's dance tracks to have hip-hop, trance-filled moments - but the dance jams are unoriginal, especially when the background noises to Gatsby's lavish parties should have been flamboyant and special soundtrack moments. To match what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to be the most extravagant, shameless parties the decade would have seen - these songs needed to have layers of upbeat perfection.

The album momentarily redeems itself after Bryan Ferry's swanky and appropriate "Love is the Drug" jazz era number swings in, paving way for the xx's breathy, but typical and slightly out-of-place, "Together." A surprising golden moment came in the form of Gotye, an artist who I never would have expected on the album, but whose "Heart's a Mess" pulls off an aching croon and lyrical longing that narrates Gatsby's wild obsession with Daisy Buchanan in a bang-on way. Jack White's absolutely scorching rendition of U2's "Love is Blindness" marks one of the only moments when a big name actually pulled through; howling his way through the challenging chorus with more Robert Plant-style passion and fire than the entire soundtrack's vocals combined. 

While Florence always amazes me, and her lush ballads never go unappreciated - melodically, I was so disappointed that, what could have been the most moving anthem on the soundtrack, had little to no spine tingling moments. References to the novel ("There's a green light in my eyes/ Cry and cry and cry over the love of you/ You're a hard soul to save, with an ocean in the way") earn extra points for encapsulating Daisy's inner struggle, but the musical progression of the song is full of Florence tricks we've heard before. In terms of brave, cinematic moments, she oddly hit it further out of the park on the Snow White soundtrack.

Thank goodness the album ends on a moving (although, lyrically depressing) note with Sia's beautiful closing statement, "Kill and Run." Her effortless vocals are exquisitely tragic on this piano ballad, with the help of melancholy symphony and lots of subliminal last chapter references. When scanning the song listing prior to listening, I have to admit I was really excited to see the Australian spark plug contributed her syrupy jazz vocals; she's always had a sultry vocal presence that could lend a rich, emotive note to any film, in my mind.

In the end, the soundtrack could have lost the fluff (Nero, Coco O, Emlie Sande) and should have whipped its leading ladies and gentleman (Jay-Z, Florence,, Fergie, Q-Tip) into shape on this momentous soundtrack opportunity. Although I have the utmost respect for Hova's brilliance in every new endeavor, an epic novel calls for more epic sounds. But, then again, maybe it will somehow work wonders on the big screen. I guess I'll believe it when I hear it.

The Great Gatsby opens tomorrow in Canada. Here are four songs I hit it off with:

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