article published on May 13, 2013.
It’s almost time. Only days away now from the long-awaited release of Baz Luhrmann’s hip-hop-infused hat tip to Fitzgerald and his Jazz Age: The Great Gatsby. The hype machine is in full swing – teasers and posters and snippets of the Jay-Z-exec-produced soundtrack have glittered the internet in Gatsby/Luhrmann extravagance and, in the true spirit of 1920s America, bootlegs aplenty. The black carpet was rolled out instead of red at the New York premiere, and will keep on rolling at Cannes as the film takes pride of place on opening night. But even beyond the reach of marketing budgets and Tiffany-Prada-Moët-sponsored style, expectations are still high – a Great American Novel written in the giddy buildup to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, directed by one of the most audacious adapters of classic texts in the gloomy grip of our very own financial crisis.
Whilst it’s hard to deny the individual pedigree of both Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and Luhrmann as modern translator, The Great Gatsby as film has proved a mongrel with almost every prior breeding attempt inside the kennels of Hollywood. A silent version was produced in 1926, hot on the heels of the book’s publication, and then subsequently lost. Alan Ladd starred in a 1949 incarnation that failed to cement the story in cinema’s annals. Fitzgerald’s daughter, so unimpressed with these attempts to adapt her father’s work, prohibited any further development of the novel until 1974. And this was set to be the defining Gatsby of cinema, surrounded by big names and made during American film’s ‘70s resurgence. Francis Ford Coppola took over writing duties from Truman Capote, Robert Redford ultimately played Jay Gatsby despite the possibility of Marlon Brando in the role, and Mia Farrow starred as Daisy. But the film, by all accounts, failed to capture the spirit of the novel and followed in the disappointing footsteps of its predecessors.
The New York Times described the 1974 version as “a period love story that seems to take itself as solemnly as Romeo and Juliet”, establishing a link between the two classics long before Baz Luhrmann would forge another in his own body of work. It’s almost twenty years since Luhrmann and DiCaprio collaborated on Romeo + Juliet, one of the most accessible adaptations in cinema history that transposed Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers, language intact, on to a modern sun-bleached metropolis full of guns, gangs and pop music. This is Romeo and Juliet at its least solemn with the spirit of the original pumping through its veins. And whilst Luhrmann has not had to modernise Fitzgerald’s story in order to reveal its soul to modern audiences – the roaring twenties are more than capable of doing that – the film’s soundtrack blend of hip-hop, rock and the defining sounds of the jazz era is an indication of what we can hope to expect from the film itself.
And those expectations are great. Luhrmann’s Gatsby promises to do justice to Fitzgerald’s novel, to capture its mood in a modern vernacular, to give audiences a heady rush of jazz and Jay-Z, of glitz and greed and all its consequences. Stuck together with the “poetic glue” (Luhrmann’s words) that is 3D, one thing’s assured: it’s certainly not going to be a solemn affair.
An extract from The Final Whistle, by Stephen Cooper