Luhrmann says his inspiration for using modern music is F. Scott Fitzgerald

Los Angeles TimesMay 9, 2013 

Baz Luhrmann didn't want to answer the question.

"I can't really say it about myself," he said. "But yes, I do."

The Australian director behind this month's hip-hop-inspired adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" had been asked if he thinks his movies -- which in addition to "Gatsby" include 1996's "Romeo + Juliet" and 2001's "Moulin Rouge!" -- use music differently than do most Hollywood pictures.

"Everything I say already sounds pretentious," he replied with a note of hesitation unusual for the voluble filmmaker. "But I do think -- and other people will tell you -- that my way is unique."

A former theater director who returned to the stage for a 2002 Broadway mounting of "La Boheme," Luhrmann, 50, uses music not simply as atmosphere or emotional punctuation but as a primary storytelling device, a means of putting the viewer in the world of his characters.

That's true even (or especially) when the music doesn't actually come from the world of his characters -- think of what he tells us about fin de siecle sexuality by dropping the mid-'70s disco-funk classic "Lady Marmalade" into "Moulin Rouge!," which takes place in 1899.

He's even bolder in "The Great Gatsby," setting F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age account of American ambition to the sleekly seductive sound of 21st century pop. The film, opening May 10, features new songs by A-list artists including Andre 3000, Jack White, Florence

+ the Machine and Jay-Z, the last of whom served as an executive producer on both the movie and its soundtrack album. Some of the music works to close the nearly 100-year gap separating the eras, as in a hot jazz-style version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and's "Bang Bang," which juices a familiar bit of Jimmy Johnson stride piano with thumping club beats. Other tunes, such as Jay-Z's hard-edged "100$ Bill," draw thematic lines between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. "History don't repeat itself," the rapper observes, "It rhymes."

"Jay was one of the first people to identify the aspirational aspect of the film," said Luhrmann, who met Jay-Z through Leonardo DiCaprio. "He saw what the movie is about and understood how we could go from hearing traditional jazz in one moment to hip-hop in the next."

"Very early on I made a decision to address this movie as though F. Scott Fitzgerald were making it," he said. "And when he was creating the novel, he wasn't nostalgic. He was a modernist -- he was mad about cinema and other modern things. And they influenced his writing."

Luhrmann is deeply familiar with the early jazz that Fitzgerald describes in "The Great Gatsby" (and which director Jack Clayton used in his 1974 film adaptation starring Robert Redford). "My stepfather had 14,000 78 (RPM records) from the period," he explained. "But no matter how much I like that music, it's classical music now." And classical music, he added, would fail to capture the "exploding" nature of the Roaring '20s for today's audience.

"Gatsby was intoxicating everyone in New York with Champagne and music, drawing them into his Venus' flytrap," he said. "Now there's another form of African-American street music -- hip-hop -- that speaks in exactly the same way to our lives."

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