Despite his reputation for grandiose films, Baz Luhrmann has never impressed me. All Baz Luhrmann films run the risk of being too much. They are grotesquely opulent, with every detail gilded and every scene overdone to the point where his movies are almost vulgar. I was horrified to discover that this director was taking on the project of adapting one of my all-time favorite books—The Great Gatsby—into a movie, when already several film adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus have failed to do the book justice. I hearken specifically to the Robert Redford version. But I love the book, so I went to see the movie anyway.
I went with low expectations. How could Baz Luhrmann do a story from the Jazz Age without jazz music? Why was Jay-Z doing the soundtrack? The only thing I felt good about was the casting. I won’t lie, I’m biased. Ever since Titanic, I’ve thought Leonardo DiCaprio was fantastic, and Carey Mulligan has proved herself a talented actress. If you haven’t seen her in An Education, you should. I was also prepared to give Tobey Maguire the benefit of the doubt, forgetting his performance in Spider Man 3 because he was amazing in Seabiscuit. And, I thought, maybe Baz Luhrmann’s overly decadent style was perfect for 1920’s New York City. It was at least worth it to see the movie.
I’m going to resist the temptation to analyze every aspect of the movie—things I liked and things I didn’t—and focus on why Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby worked. I thought it worked because Luhrmann’s style and decisions made the story and the themes of Gatsby seem relevant today. Through the contemporary music, skilled acting, and modern cinematography, Luhrmann brought out the main theme of the story—that the American dream is an unattainable illusion in an unstable world—and made it relevant to a modern audience.
I was struck by the scene where Nick goes the apartment in the city that Tom keeps for Myrtle. A small party ensues with Tom, Myrtle, Nick, Myrtle’s sister, and a few other people. The cinematography is shot like a contemporary club scene, with the characters dancing to pop music with an overabundance of sex and alcohol. The music was truly genius. It gave the entire movie a sense of relevancy, particularly the party scenes. While the girls were dressed as flappers, the wild dancing and abundance of alcohol set to Beyonce and Fergie gave the party scenes the same atmosphere that you might find at a club downtown. It felt like a modern party, even if it looked like the 1920s.
There were other elements that made the Gatsby story feel immediate, particularly in Gatsby himself. Leonardo DiCaprio, an experienced heartthrob, easily captured the cool attractiveness of Jay Gatsby, but he infused the character with insecurity and instability along with his sense of hopefulness. Gatsby is an incarnate reminder of the fragility of the American dream—the man who envisioned a great life for himself and ended up shot dead in his pool—both in the 1920s (which resulted in the economic depression of the 30s), and today, where current economic instability continues to haunt the attainability of the American dream.
But economics isn’t the only thing threatening the American dream. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the disillusionment of the Jazz Age, but today’s post modernism—the cultural movement skeptical of any asserted meaning or definition—has brought on its own disillusionment for our age. Fitzgerald dealt with the rise of modernism following the disaster of the First World War, the cultural movement where meaning became relative to each individual. But today’s generation battles something even more demoralizing—the postmodern concept that there is no meaning, relative or absolute. Jay Gatsby followed the blinking green light, but today’s postmodern generation finds the light completely extinguished.
The Great Gatsby, as written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, captured the disillusionment of a generation after World War I. Baz Luhrmann’s film reminds us that the disillusionment is still there. He uses pop music to make Gatsby’s parties feel like a modern club. His contemporary cinematography added to this effect as Luhrmann shot the party scenes like club scenes are filmed in contemporary films. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby was a grim reminder that the American dream is often unrealized, the dreamer (figuratively) shot dead before his dream can come true. All these things gave Luhrmann’s film a feeling of real urgency, the feeling that even if the story is from the 1920s, the message is still relevant today.