Friday, October 31, 2014
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Jay-Z and Jay Gatsby, in business together in Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

Jack White, Beyonce, Bryan Ferry also on star-studded soundtrack

Jay-Z and Jay Gatsby, in business together in Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

My life has got to be like this," says Leonardo DiCaprio, as Jay Gatsby, pointing his finger towards the sky. "It's got to keep going up," he adds, in Baz Luhrmann's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, opening Friday.

Those aspirational words are the first ones heard on the soundtrack to Luhrmann's (Moulin Rouge!) juiced-up take on the Jazz Age novel.

And they serve as a prelude to the opening track, "100$ Bill," by Jay-Z, who helmed the star-studded Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film The Great Gatsby (Universal ***). Among others, the soundtrack includes contributions from Beyoncé & OutKast's Andre 3000, Jack White and Lana Del Rey.

Jay-Z shares an adopted first name with Fitzgerald's titular hero. (He was born Shawn Carter; Gatsby came into the world as James Gatz.) In "100$ Bill," however, the rapper refers to himself as "Carter, new Kennedy / No ordinary Joe, you will remember me."

And in so doing, Jay-Z provides part of the answer to the question that this soundtrack begs: Why does a movie set in 1922 feature music performed by the rappers, rockers, and torch singers of 2013?

Isn't it anachronistic, a forced attempt to make parallels between the all-night soirees at Gatsby's palatial West Egg digs and, say, the hip-hop hedonism of a Diddy White Party in the Hamptons?

Well, it is a little silly. And sure, having Jay-Z so intimately involved in the project was surely attractive to Luhrmann for commercial reasons as he strove to make an 88-year-old novel about class and ambition that's required reading in high-school English the cool date movie of the summer.

But letting Jay-Z have his say on Jay Gatsby also makes sense on thematic and artistic grounds, while meshing stylistically with the "Suit & Tie" retro style he's sharing this summer with his touring partner Justin Timberlake.

In fact, the real-life rapper and the mysterious fictional millionaire have much in common.

Jay-Z grew up poor in the Marcy projects in Brooklyn; Gatsby was born to an impoverished farming family in North Dakota.

In their pursuit of the American dream, both characters create new identities and operate outside the law on the path to mainstream success. Gatsby - like political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, whom Jay-Z cites in song - made his money by selling bootleg liquor during Prohibition, amassing enough cash to host senators and movie stars at his Long Island manse.

Jay-Z, meanwhile, has never been shy about flaunting the drug-dealing bona fides - he started selling crack at age 13, he's told Oprah - that taught him the deal-making principles that helped to make him a showbiz mover and shaker who now hobnobs with heads of state.

Narrator Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, finds Gatsby admirable despite his flaws, particularly his "extraordinary gift for hope." Jay-Z sees himself as similarly inspirational. Last year, he told The Inquirer that the idea behind the Budweiser Made in America festival, which he curates (and which will take place, for the second time, on Labor Day weekend in Philadelphia) is "the hope that America is built on. That you can make it here. . . So many people identify with me because of the place that I come from."

In 1922, Gatsby was aware of class distinctions and fearful of the truth coming out about how he built his fortune. Jay-Z on the other hand, is happy to discuss his origins: "The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners," he rhymed in the song "Made in America." "I got my liberty chopping grams up / Street justice, I pray God understands us."

So, does the modern music selected by Jay-Z work in this postmodern retelling of Gatsby's story? For the most part, yes.

It's jarring at first when the Jay-Z-Kanye West track "No Church in the Wild," plays over one of the opening scenes in the film. Its contemporary urban beats are used to convey Wall Street hysteria, then as now.

But the upbeat dance tracks included on the soundtrack, like will.i.am's Louis Armstrong-imitating "Bang Bang," are largely used for wild party scenes in the movie, which rarely feels overwhelmed by its music.

Modern and vintage sounds are often mixed in scenes, as Luhrmann explained in an interview on Jay-Z's Life+Times website (lifeandtimes.com). A scene in a speakeasy, for instance, flows from "100$ Bill" to a jazz version of the song by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra.

"Although our story may be set in the 1920s," the director said, "to quote one of Jay's rhymes, 'History doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes.' What I get from that is universal truth moves through time and geography."

The Gatsby soundtrack contains many songs barely heard, if heard at all, in the movie. The 21-track deluxe version runs too long, but has significant highlights. Lana Del Rey's narcoleptic "Young and Beautiful" is suitably glum in its morning-after fatalism. And Jack White's rip into U2's "Love is Blindness," gives the disc a dose of rock-and-roll angst.

The most talked-about cover is Beyoncé and Andre 3000's spare, stutter-step version of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." It's a daring effort, but comes off as more arty than emotive, and is limited because the OutKast rapper can't really sing and, when artfully restrained, Beyoncé sound oddly anonymous.

Much more engaging are The xx's moody "Together" and Scottish singer Emeli Sandé's imaginatively neurotic reworking of Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. (Not to mention Ferry's reinvention of his own "Love is the Drug.") And amid the big names - Gotye, Florence & the Machine, and Fergie are also on hand - the breakout act is Coco O. of Danish electro-duo Quadron. She distinguishes herself with an aching vocal on "Where the Wind Blows" that hints at the storm that will cast a dark shadow over Gatsby's beautiful dream.

The Gatsby trailer featuring "100$ Bill" is below.

Previously: El Vez at El Vez Follow In The Mix on Twitter

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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