Over the many months leading up to this week’s release of Baz Luhrmann’s hotly-anticipated literary adaptation of The Great Gatsby, much has been made about the anticipated accommodations, additions, and outright alterations to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic story. Has Mr. Luhrmann’s obsession with modernization gone awry, or is he aptly adjusting an 88-year-old book (and a 39-year-old film) for the very different expectations of today’s audiences? We won’t know for sure until Friday, but here’s why at least one writer thinks he’s the perfect man for the job.
After a quick glance at its IMDb page, arguing the 1974 cinematic interpretation of The Great Gatsby is not a film for the ages may appear an impossible task. Just look at Gatsby himself: an in-his-prime Robert Redford coming off his first Academy Award nomination for The Sting. It’s hard to top the prestige factor of just his presence in the film, and then you throw in Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay along with the film’s two Oscars.
Classic film, right?
Further investigation shows the cracks in the film’s seemingly-fine foundation. The two Oscars it won were for Costume Design and Music, and they were the only nominations the film received. Coppola—a staple of cinema and the Oscars throughout the 1970s—was nowhere to be found. Redford was also missing from the nominations’ list.
More importantly, those who saw the film were less than ecstatic. It’s Metascore (via Metacritic.com) comes in at 43, implying mixed reviews (but only three points away from being “generally unfavorable”). The Great Gatsby’s Tomatometer is a woeful 34 percent, and none of the “Top Critics” give it a positive review.
In Roger Ebert’s two-and-a-half star critique, the late legend says The Great Gatsby is “a superficially beautiful hunk of a movie with nothing much in common with the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.” Vincent Canby of The New York Times writes, “nothing…comes close to catching the spirit of Fitzgerald’s impatient brilliance.”
Other critics echo these sentiments in various ways, making it safe to say the critical reception of 1974’s The Great Gatsby was far less cordial than that of the novel. It’s too early to say whether or not Baz Luhrmann’s version will be held in a higher regard, but it’s certainly safe to say he’s not trodding on holy ground.
The Great Gatsby was released in 1925 and takes place in 1922, during a period of unprecedented American wealth known as the Roaring Twenties. New money and old money intermingled in a post-war frenzy of capitalism, and Fitzgerald scathingly noted the detriments to each breed of greed. He could not have known the extent of the damage brought on by the oncoming Great Depression, but his message was thoroughly reinforced by its arrival five years after his novel’s first publication.
In 2013 America—depending on who you talk to—we’re either living in a continued recession or recovering from the worst economic collapse since the one so close to Gatsby’s original release. The various causes to America’s latest recession have created a furthering of the class divide. Occupy Wall Street. A fierce hatred of corporations. Anything ostentatious being scaled back to avoid reproach. The American dream has become something modest. It’s closer to just getting by, with many afraid to hope for the lavish lifestyle that seems so far out of reach.
At its heart, The Great Gatsby is a ruthless attack on materialism and corruption brought on by devotion to the almighty dollar. Anyone thinking these inapplicable to modern day American living isn’t taking part in it. Gatsby’s gaudy get-togethers will never appear as wasteful or hollow, while his misunderstanding of requisite social conventions will be more endearing than ever. The divisions between his new, illegitimate money and the Buchanans’ old, inherited wealth should spark vital conversation about the distribution of wealth today.
If you choose to ignore all that or Baz somehow botches the retelling, the misunderstood romance at the film’s center should still resonate with lovelorn theater patrons everywhere.
Love him, hate him, or just wish he cut 40 minutes out of Australia, no one can dispute Luhrmann’s innate grasp on the grandiose. There’s never been anything modest about Baz’s business. Be it Romeo + Juliet and its fervorous take on Shakespeare’s tale, or Moulin Rouge!, the zenith of his career as a filmer of the spectacular, spectacular, Luhrmann never lacks for the lavish.
He’s also a proven auteur of romantic cinema. His over-the-top compositions could make up Valentine’s Day cards for the rest of time, but we seem to forget in the flourish of fantastic images that he writes these stories as well. He’s had a hand in writing every film he’s directed, making him an authority on modern romance in both original writing (Moulin Rouge!, Australia) and adaptations (Romeo + Juliet).
Does he have the track record of a Fincher, Anderson (Wes or Paul Thomas), the Coen brothers or other modern masters? No. The Great Gatsby will be just his fifth feature, and only one of his previous four could be considered a masterpiece (Moulin Rouge!). I think even the most cynical Luhrmann-basher, though, would admit he has the capabilities to make great films, and the attributes we’ve seen him display so far line up perfectly with those needed to make a truly great Gatsby.
Yes, I’m sure Warner Bros. was thrilled Luhrmann wanted Jay-Z on board to executive produce the Gatsby soundtrack. It makes the film infinitely more marketable, especially to the coveted younger crowds filling multiplexes this summer.
But it’s also a smart choice artistically. Implementing jazz music—the traditional party music of the 1920s—in the “wild party scenes” at the Gatsby mansion would never have translated to modern audiences. No one hears “jazz” and thinks “party” anymore. We think “old” or “ugh” (not me personally, dear readers). Bringing in the most well-respected musician of the last decade was an inspired decision that will hopefully result in yet another unforgettable Baz Luhrmann soundtrack.
Beyond that, Jay-Z has long been known to blend musical styles and also has a proven track record of using films as inspiration for compelling creativity. His album American Gangster (brought on by the 2008 film of the same name) may have eclipsed its cinematic predecessor in relevancy, even if you agreed with Jay’s high regard for the film’s quality (I do). Knowing what can happen when Jay gets energized adds a whole new level of possibility to the picture, especially when you think of pairing him with a director known for producing impeccable soundtracks.
Like many aspects of the new Gatsby, utilizing Jay’s talents is a high-risk-for-a-high-reward move. Here’s hoping it pays off.
I don’t know why exactly I’m so enticed by this casting call, but after a year’s worth of previews, photos, and clips from the 2013 Gatsby, I feel Leonardo DiCaprio has already stolen the historical identification of the titular character from Robert Redford.
Some of this can be attributed to the lukewarm reception for Redford’s movie, and its failure to become the iconic cinematic interpretation, instead settling for the only example available. Some can be attributed to my excitement and immersion in all things Gatsby these past few weeks. But some credit must be given to DiCaprio. Yes, before we even see his performance in full.
DiCaprio has made a career out of playing haunted, confused men desperate enough to do anything for their cause. Usually strange, unconventional things. In Inception, Dominic Cobb was willing to risk his life and the lives of his friends to get back to his children by dipping into the limbo of dream space. Howard Hughes, who DiCaprio played in The Aviator, spent unheard of amounts of money to try to achieve his dreams before eventually losing his mind to a disease he couldn’t understand. Even Romeo, from Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, commits suicide when he thinks he’s caused the love his life to kill herself so they can be together in death, if not in life.
For a movie originally scheduled for a December release, it’s easy to imagine DiCaprio in full-on trophy mode, ready to capture the Oscar that’s been out of reach thus far in his career. It’s his role to ruin, and that’s not something he’s known for—he’s known for delivering the goods. Possibilities abound for what he can bring to a character as dynamic as Jay Gatsby.
Possibility. That’s what Dicaprio and this new movie represent. We’ll all find out if that possibility becomes reality soon enough.
// Notes from the Road
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