In early 2013, the much anticipated remake of “The Great Gatsby” nose-dived in theaters due to a slew of overwhelmingly negative reviews by critics. Like most, I jumped onto the anti-bandwagon, believing the hype. However, when it released on blu-ray the other week, I found a unique gem amidst all of the rotten tomatoes. When I heard that the soundtrack to “The Great Gatsby” was being produced by Jay-Z, I laughed. Imagine Mr. Manhattan a.k.a: Young Hov, Jiggaman, J-Hova, MC’ing a one-percenter party with oil barons, Richard Branson and Michele Bachmann. I guess that’s not actually that far off. On the other hand, my Gatsby brought me back to high school Literature class when I was force-fed the classics, and all I could imagine was nose to ceiling bourgeoisery with stuffy jazz music. Now, nobody is arguing that just about every character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece was unsavory and/or “fake” as the kids say, with the exception of Nick Carraway. Fitzgerald admitted this himself, intentionally placing Carraway into the lot of them so we could feel connected in Gatsby’s world of obnoxious excess. Yet, what better way to revamp the story than with hip hop? Hear me out.
Think of your average hip-hop music video, with the excessive bling, gyrating, and mansions filled with champagne. Not much different from the roaring twenties Fitzgerald painted, yes? Now suspend your disbelief even further and think of hip hop’s perception when we were growing up in the ’90s, and even a little bit now. Do you remember the PTA wanting to ban rap music in schools? Well, jazz was received in just about the same way in the 1920s. It was considered the soundtrack to bootlegging, slumming, and anything else regarded as anti-Leave it to Beaver, so to speak.
Before I step off my soapbox, I will admit that I haven’t been a fan of hip hop since the days of East vs. West and certainly not when Timberlands and Fubu were replaced by Vans and skinny jeans. But it doesn’t take a hip-hop fan boy to recognize the artistic attempt behind the film.
So it wasn’t surprising to see Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, “The Great Gatsby,” receive some of the most hostile reviews from critics that I have ever seen. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a roaring 49 percent, citing it as “biting off too much.” and “Roll over in grave-inducing.” While Luhrmann, who also directed “Australia,” “Moulin Rouge,” and “Romeo + Juliet,” has been known for his extravagance in producing epics reminiscent of Orson Welles and Howard Hughes. His films have always attempted to reinvent, rather than finely tune. A good amount of the negative reviews cited Robert Redford’s Gatsby as the shoes Dicaprio’s failed to fill, but I found the latter to be the better of the two. Yes, Redford’s Gatsby was the book to the tooth, which is probably why I dozed off twice and just about gagged during every scene featuring the lovely, and bipolar Paris Hilton… I mean, Daisy.
Perhaps the film aimed too high, assuming our demographic could remember a decade in the past when the Man was still trying to regulate music. If I learned anything from UW Tacoma’s many film classes, it’s that directors usually know exactly what they are doing when they make a film. I believe that one could make the argument that the negative reception to “Gatsby” was to be expected as the debauchery of Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby” was nothing to admire. The story of Gatsby was a 1920s tragedy, and perhaps its merit, like most Greek tragedies, was to be found in the moral of it all. I am just surprised Luhrmann didn’t go full-revamp and set it in modern day Dubai.