Beyonce And Jay-Z Meet The Jazz Age: Pop And Hip-Hop In ‘The Great Gatsby’

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

The 1920's were the age of jazz, when it was the fresh and rebellious music of youth. In 2013, hip-hop electronic, and pop are what hipsters listen to when they party. But is there a common thread between the sounds of these two eras? Baz Lurhmann seems to be betting that there is.

F. Scott Fitzgerald described the music that could be heard at Jay Gatsby's parties in his classic 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby" like so:

"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights ... by seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitiful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and coronets an piccolos, and low and high drums … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher."

But could Fitzgerald have imagined his "yellow cocktail music" taking the form of Beyonce and Andre 3000 performing a cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back To Black"?

That's the first song heard in the new trailer for Baz Luhrmann's upcoming screen adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire. One of Luhrmann's stylistic trademarks is using contemporary pop music to compliment and contrast stories drawn from the past, as he did in "Moulin Rouge" and "Romeo + Juliet."

Watch the new trailer for 'The Great Gatsby':

In addition to Beyonce, the new trailer also uses tunes from Lana Del Ray ("Young and Beautiful") and Florence and the Machine ("Over The Love") to accompany the lush, stylized visuals, which portray Gatsby's opulent lifestyle with only a dash more realism than Lurhmann delivered in "Moulin Rouge." The soundtrack album will also feature new material from Jay-Z, Gotye, Jack White, and So where does the music fit into a story set in the early 1920s, when jazz was the reigning popular music and rock and hip-hop didn't even exist?

"For me, Luhrmann is one of the only directors, Tarantino pops to mind as the other example, who can get away with this conceit in large part because Baz never strives for 'realism,'" says Perry Seibert, a film critic for All Movie Guide and TV Guide online. "He's as much a formalist as Tim Burton or David Lynch, it's just that he's unafraid of taking a what could I guess be described awkwardly as a traditional postmodern approach; he'll mix and match things from different eras not to score some cheap nostalgic sentiment with viewers, but in order to get at the deeper, operatic emotions he wants to elicit from his viewers."

If Luhrmann paints his stories in broad, romantic gestures, he's also shrewd enough to know how to bring in an audience. By casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in a hip version of "Romeo + Juliet" that featured music by Radiohead, Garbage, and the Cardigans, he drew in a young audience that would otherwise not been likely to sit through Shakespeare's romantic tragedy. The success on radio and MTV of a version of "Lady Marmalade" featuring Christina Aguilera, Pink, L'il Kim and Mya did wonders for the marketing of "Moulin Rouge." Mashing up past and present isn't just style for Luhrmann, it's good business, and it could add a new commercial relevance to "The Great Gatsby," described by many as the best American novel of the 20th Century.

"In 'Moulin Rouge,' the medley of love songs drew from every era of pop and rock, and by doing that Luhrmann gets away with making the larger point that every generation has these unabashedly romantic sentiments expressed in popular art," Seibert says. "Who knows what he'll do in 'Gatsby,' but the story of a man who creates a persona, adopts a fake name, earns millions by less than legal means, and throws lavish parties sounds an awful lot like the general idea behind most music videos."