When the first trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was released a year ago, it was set to the music of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” from the sometimes duo’s incredibly self-important Watch the Throne album.
On the surface it made sense. Jay-Z — who retired as a rapper in 2003, only to re-emerge three years later as a branding mogul who raps mainly to further his brand recognition and expand on his legacy (and occasionally become a topic of discussion in White House press briefings) — has become the soundtrack for film trailers from 42 to Sex in the City 2 to Safe House to GI Joe: Retaliation to a few movies that could be listed but no one would recognize.
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There’s no clear beginning of this music-to-movie relationship. One could say it began with 2007’s American Gangster, Jay’s underwhelming post-retirement, post-Kingdom Come backlash comeback-slash-concept album.
But looking further back, there was 2004’s Fade to Black concert documentary, his 2000 Backstage concert documentary and, before it all, Streets is Watching, his loosely plotted feature film/music video compilation DVD from 1998.
What made the Gatsby trailer different from everything before it was that it was released at the height of Jay and Kanye’s griping about the gilded cages they had wrought with the fame and fortune they’ve pursued with almost single-minded mastery and featured a group of well-dressed Black folk cruising a New York City bridge in a fancy drop top vehicle while clinking champagne glasses and wielding a bottle of alcohol.
Set in the 1920’s, it played like a science fiction or alternate history, making a dozen statements without missing a beat. By the time the actual boring, overblown Romain Gavras-directed video for “No Church in the Wild” came out a few days later, it paled in comparison. Where the video was all aesthetic and slow-motion signifiers signifying nothing, the Gatbsy trailer was garish and raucous and vibrant and personal and decadent and sinister. Gavras alluded to Arab springs and London riots and civil rights battles and Occupy movements with beautiful moving pictures, but Lurmann’s trailer was all tension and menace and masquerades of a more relatable form. For all its visual reaching, “Church” was provocation for provocation’s sake; Gatsby‘s trailer was provocative because it made a book we’ve all read more than once seem like a movie we had to see — even if it’s already been translated to film four times and this one was directed by the guy who brought us Moulin Rouge.
All this needs to be taken into account when evaluating the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby because, despite the quaint origin story of Jay and Lurhmann meeting in the room at the Mercer Hotel where Jay was recording “No Church in the Wild,” this soundtrack has not been advertised or talked about in terms of art, but sheer market power: the big names, the big event, the “executive produced by Jay-Z” of it all.
Yet, listening to the album, there seems to be a small handful of songs (if that) that Jay himself would actually pump through his solid rhodium Beats by Dre headphones. This is not his Made in America festival, which he ostensibly curates with music that would be in a playlist that actually gets used on his iPhone 7. This is not Paid in Full, the 2002 soundtrack to the movie he produced, which highlighted the type of music he grew up on and served as a platform for the artists on his label. This is his minority share in the Brooklyn Nets, being flipped for courtside seats, a box suite, 40/40 and Roc-a-Wear stores and Ace of Spades deals in the Barclays Center. This is Business Jay. Even the “JG” (Jay Gatsby) insignia from the movie poster is transformed into “JZ” for the soundtrack artwork. Because he’s not a business, man, he’s a logo, like the Coca-Cola script or the golden arches.
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For his part, Jay shows up on “100$ Bill,” a throwaway track full of Gatsby-inspired Easter egg rhymes and boasts of how he used to sell drugs (“Malcolm of the talcum”) but is now the “new Kennedy, no ordinary Joe,” and it’s all puffed out via a stilted flow that sounds as if he can’t even be bothered to finish his couplets. André 3000 and Beyoncé remake Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” an idea that doesn’t read well on paper and comes off even worse in reality. Realizing that neither of them can match Winehouse’s comfortable despair or vocal range, Three Stacks and Mrs. Carter opt for coquettish detached deliveries over a minimal pulsating semi-groove, which is a shame; the original would have fit the movie’s theme better.
Emeli Sande’s jazz-band cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” doesn’t fare much better; it almost comes off as King B’s attempt to sabotage Sande’s introduction to most American listeners. Then there are a pair of schizophrenic, genre-skipping numbers: one by will.i.am and another by Fergie, Q-Tip and LMFAO collaborator GoonRock — both songs only come alive in the few moments that they eschew all period-ness and go full bore into EDM.
It’s not all bad. The temporal cross-pollination that the project is supposed to exemplify comes across in the the bouncy ragtime piano of “Where the Wind Blows” by Coco O. of the Danish duo Quadron, and offerings by Lana Del Rey, Florence + Machine, Sia and The xx work because those acts stick to their formulas, which is basically moody, atmospheric soundtrack music, without having to try. The album’s best song belongs to Jack White, who takes the psychedelic longing of U2’s “Love is Blindness” and slices it with a straight razor to make the bleeding confusion rock that’s his hallmark. Tellingly enough, this song is two years old and has seen prior release twice. As Jay-Z raps on “100$ Bill” when he paraphrases Mark Twain, “History don’t repeat itself, it rhymes.”
With hip-hop’s long history of appropriating jazz music, this could have been an experiment in high art. And given Jay and Luhrmann’s reach, it could have been mindblowing. Imagine Diddy, with his Hamptons parties and haminess, playing up his Gatsby aspirations backed by a full orchestra. Instead, what we get is a JZ insignia, with no real feeling of the man himself — which may be the most Gatsbyesque thing of all.