A director's eclectic ear

Director Baz Luhrmann has proven time and time again that he can infuse classic storylines with contemporary music.

Warner Bros. Pictures
‘The Great Gatsby’
‘The Great Gatsby’ soundtrack

Seldom does a blockbuster movie have to compete for ink with its own soundtrack, but when it comes to movies by Baz Luhrmann, “The Great Gatsby” director, it happens frequently. Mr. Luhrmann has proved, time and time again, his mastery of infusing classic story lines with contemporary rhythms, remaining true to historical settings even as he connects the score to modern audiences in unexpected ways. 

His radical reworking of “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” announced a unique new visionary as a director of both image and music. The 1996 film moved the story locale from Verona, Italy, to modern suburbia, with a soundtrack to match, featuring Radiohead, The Cardigans, and other hot acts of the day. The soundtrack album went platinum five times, the second-highest selling album of any kind that year.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s 19th-century Paris might not exactly spur thoughts of David Bowie, Massive Attack, and Christina Aguilera, but those popsters heated up the soundtrack of Luhrmann’s next hit film, “Moulin Rouge!,” which also spawned a Grammy-winning single, “Lady Marmalade.”

The director was already thinking of a hip-hop influenced score from the earliest conceptual stages of his take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Why hip-hop, when vintage jazz would seem to be the natural choice for the novel’s Roaring ’20s setting? The director explained to MTV News, “I wanted the modern audience to get the feeling of what jazz may have felt like in the ’20s – dangerous, intoxicating, thrilling.”

“Gatsby” leading man Leonardo DiCaprio told Vanity Fair that he introduced Luhrmann to the godfather of all things hip-hop, Jay-Z, and minutes after they met, as the director began explaining his vision for the film’s music, Jay-Z interrupted his new acquaintance. “We shouldn’t be talking about it. We should be getting on and doing it. It’s that important, to make the connection between jazz and hip-hop, that this is the African American storytelling street music of our time,” he said, according to Vanity Fair.

Soon Jay-Z and Luhrmann had enlisted an A-list army of talent for the soundtrack: Hip-hoppers Jay-Z, André 3000, and will.i.am got things rolling; Beyoncé contributed a sultry vocal; red-hot Grammy winner Gotye brought a killer track, as did indie music queens Lana Del Rey and Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, frenetic rocker Jack White, and Roxy Music crooner/jazzbo Bryan Ferry.

Whether or not classic plus modern makes for a great “Gatsby,” it’s worlds away from all that jazz.

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