Baz Luhrmann’s Bombastic Gatsby
by David Yearsley, June 19, 2013
Like an obnoxiously drunk, loudmouthed, long-winded, overly-pleased-with-himself, vacuously ostentatious guest who refuses to leave the party even though it’s long been over, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby lingers at the local multiplex, Scotch in one hand, cigar in the other, rapping away at the top of his lungs. The critics were the first to flee the loathsome fete, lambasting the film’s grandiosity and self-indulgence. But in spite of such huffy dismissals, this cinematic blowhard has raked in more than twice its estimated hundred million dollar price tag, with more revenues to come from the long-term revenue stream soon to be trickling down its gilded urinal.
Yet if one can endure an assault on the senses of D-Day-like proportions, the movie offers a weirdly illuminating, if scarily overblown, demonstration of form and content in perfect harmony.
Never before has the extreme profligacy of contemporary times, whose hedge fund and social network Gatsbies dwarf the budgets and pretensions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary prototype, been more bombastically mapped onto the excesses of the early twentieth century. The film is as wasteful and out of control as the America of today.
I was dragged — not exactly kicking and screaming, but dragged nonetheless — to a screening last week because of the appearance of an organ in the movie, as my kidnapper enthusiastically informed me. Even as I weakly resisted my abduction in the direction of the mall, I rationalized my contribution to the producers’ profits with the thought that I could at least deduct the price of the ticket as a research expense.
The organ served as the musical embodiment of pathological overabundance long before the advent of motion pictures, but the cinema consummated this tendency. In Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby we hear the strains of an organ near the beginning of the movie blaring through a scrim of digital effects as revelers pour into the Gatsby mansion, a computer-generated pile that looks so fake it’s almost laughable — a Robber Baron castle pumped up on steroid-laced saccharine. The pitches we hear are the first three notes of Bach’s Toccata in D Minor. These are probably the most universally recognized three notes in all of music, not just classical. Play them anywhere on anything — from Notre Dame’s mighty organ to your three-year-old’s kazoo — and millions, if not billions, of people will recognize the reference.
After conjuring the infamous Toccata, Luhrmann and soundtrack manager, composer Craig Armstrong, pause there and don’t give us the descending minor run that follows. It’s a rare moment of delayed gratification in a film that’s all about immediate surfeit and sensual over-stimulation—not to mention over-simulation.
The opening three notes of the Toccata hang in the computer-generated air for several coy seconds as we are ushered into the festive hall in the Gatsby Mansion in whose gallery the Art Deco organ looms in exaggerated geometric patterns, raining its Dionysian blessing down on the partiers. It’s a given that this instrument should look unrealistic: Luhrmann’s film is pure fantasy. As for the sound, if it’s a real organ, it’s a bad one. Once inside we get a fleeting continuation of the Toccata with mod-con digital updates, as Luhrmann unleashes exotic dancers and hip-hop odes to partying hard.
The filmmakers have invested much of their public relations capital congratulating themselves on the chronological disjunction between the music of Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties and what the soundtrack offers: hip-hop they claim gives modern audiences a truer sense of “Jazz Age Sensibility.” In reality the result is a revue of entertainment elites cranking things up and dumbing things down, from the immortal lines of executive producer Jay Z’s “one hundred million, bitch” to Beyoncé singing “I love blow.” When these and other invitees to Luhrmann’s sonic orgy aren’t pumping away, we are treated to palpitating ballads about love like Del Rey’s maudlin Young and Beautiful, songs whose enfeebled emotions wheeze breathily through the stranglehold of pitch-correction software.
In an attempt to lend his creation not only street-cred but also a touch of Golden Age class, Luhrmann allows his composer Armstrong a few grandiose orchestral stretches, as in the main theme that accompanies the emblematic green light at the end of Daisy’s dock across the bay from Gatsby’s mansion. This marquee moment elicits from Armstrong synth strings comforting a weepy solo violin in what amounts to an automated version of Samuel Barber’s Adagio — the superficial masquerading as the sumptuous. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is also impressed into service, a clichéd attempt to establish the catholic musical tastes of the filmmakers as they stagger between the then and the now.
Luhrmann’s irrepressible urge to overdo is symbolized most clearly in the image and sound of the Gatsby organ. It is true that the magnates of the Jazz Age liked to build organs into their mansions, though never as big as the fake one in the movie. The Frick house on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has a rather discreet instrument on the landing of the main staircase, and it can still be heard drifting down to the inner court in weekly concerts. The effect is refined rather than bombastic. Luhrmann lusts after the latter. He’s both obvious and excessive, hence the Toccata in D minor.
There is no organ in the novel, but rather a piano, played by a “boarder” at the Gatsby mansion, a certain Ewing Klipspringer. He repeatedly protests that he’s out of practice, but is bullied into playing by Gatsby,
“Don’t talk so much, sport,” admonishes Gatsby. “Play!” Klipspringer relents and tries to make his way through the Tin Pan Alley tune Ain’t We Got Fun. Fitzgerald’s understated vignette captures brilliantly what many an on-and-off again pianist has had to suffer when forced into performing by a host.
The novel’s intimate music room scene, with Nick, Gatsby and Daisy listening to the piano is relocated in the movie to the organ hall and Klipspringer elevated from hapless keyboard fumbler to “symphonic genius” as DiCaprio’s Gatsby puts it. This new supercharged Klipspringer let’s loose in the film with an immoderate and unlikely fantasia. The telling awkwardness of the original scene becomes overblown parody in the new screen version. The Gatsbian ethos of bigger is better has birthed in Luhrmann’s Gatsby a chronicle of limitless excess and bottomless bad taste, a frightening Dolby 3D portrait of its own Age.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.