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 Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby   Mon May 20, 2013 4:31 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925, and the story which explored the excesses of decadence and idealism in 1920's America, sold poorly when first published. After Fitzgerald's death in 1940, his works enjoyed a revival during World War 2. It's revival led to a film adaptation in 1949 directed by Elliot Nugent and starring Alan Ladd, (there was a 1926 adaptation, which has since been lost). 2 more adaptations followed, one in 1974, directed by Jack Clayton, written by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford as Gatsby. Until now, this was the most faithful adaptation, but this was a muted piece, quite sombre and cold in it's approach, but it did very well at the box-office. There was a TV adaptation for A&E and Granada in 2000 starring Toby Stephens as Gatsby, this version didn't make much of a splash either. Then Baz Luhrmann came along, he had always been a fan of the original book, and was reintroduced to the text while on a train ride on the Transiberian Express in 2004. After he made Australia (2008), Luhrmann announced this would be his next film, and he would be giving his adaptation the same Red Curtain treatment he gave to Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Luhrmann spent the next 3 years meticulously researching the period the book was set in, the costumes, the cars and the parties. Getting the money for the film would be difficult, after Australia flopped, it seemed Luhrmann was, briefly washed up, he had been burned out after his planned Alexander the Great film had been cancelled due to creative difference, but he would not give up on The Great Gatsby, he was determined to make it the best adaptation of them all. Luhrmann has succeeded, this is an adaptation a world way from other takes, and all the better for it, it's wild, dramatic yet gorgeous to look at.

It begins in 1929, where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is at a sanatorium battling alcoholism, he tells Dr. Perkins (Jack Thompson) of a man he knew called Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). We flash back to 1922, where Carraway came to New York from the Midwest to work on Wall Street as a bond salesman. He lives on the Long Island village of West Egg, in a little cottage next door to a gargantuan mansion owned by Gatsby, who people Nick meet claim to have seldom seen, and they all have a story about Gatsby. Across the water in East Egg lives Nick's cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), who is gruff and short-tempered, but was acquaintances with Nick from college. Tom introduces Nick to the party life in New York, going for a wild party with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), whose husband George (Jason Clarke) owns a garage in the Valley of the Ashes, an industrial wasteland between Long Island and New York. Before long, Nick gets an invitation to one of Gatsby's parties, and Nick finally gets to meet this mysterious man, who is charming yet neurotic. Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby knew Daisy 5 years earlier when he was serving in the Great War. Gatsby wishes to rekindle the romance he had with Daisy, even though she's married to Tom, and arranges an impromptu reunion at Nick's cottage, where after an awkward few minutes, sparks fly again. It's clear that they still love each other and that they want to give their romance another go, but they have to tell Tom, who they know won't take the news well at all, Nick is stuck in the middle as observer to this ensuing soap opera, knowing that his life will never be the same again.

With Baz Luhrmann at the helm, this adaptation of The Great Gatsby was going to be anything but subtle. If you look at Luhrmann's films, you'll see that he doesn't take the foot off the brakes, even in the quieter, more intimate moments of Gatsby, there's always something going on. Luhrmann is a man who made Shakespeare cool for kids and brought the tired old musical genre kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, here he has to make a 1920's novel appeal to todays audience. He succeeds brilliantly, this is a story which says a lot about our wreckless culture today and how we ended up in Recession, in the 1920's, the wreckless culture led to the 1929 Crash and Depression, we didn't learn from then. Luhrmann paints a parable of excess gone mad. His 1920's isn't all Charleston and Ziegfeld Follies, no Luhrmann asked rapper Jay-Z to help oversee the soundtrack for his Gatsby. That decision could have been a train crash, combining 1920's excess with rap music, but it works. While there are snaps and shots of period music throughout, once the characters drink or party, the music changes. One example is at the first party Carraway attends, where you hear a 1920's take on Bryan Ferry's Love Is the Drug dissolve into a hip-hop version in seconds. The soundtrack turns out to the the films biggest weapon in it's arsenal, with songs by will.i.am, Beyoncé, Jack White and Emeli Sandé. Luhrmann did this to similar effect on Moulin Rouge! adding Rogers & Hammerstein and Lennon/McCartney to the mix. It's clear that he loves music, and he made a daring choice with the music here, but it moves the film along, and it helps enchance the excessive culture seen through drunken eyes.

Luhrmann brought 1920's New York back to vivid life in his native Australia. He wanted to film it in New York, but moved home because the city had changed so much since the 1920's, and that it was going to be expensive to film it there. It doesn't affect the film one jot, he took over nearly every soundstage at Fox Studios in Sydney to create his epic, the wild parties have so much glitz and razzle, and they come out beautifully on film. It was all designed by Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin, who also co-produced the film, and designed the stunning costumes, which were researched back to original designs from the 1920's. If the film gets nominated for any Oscars next year, this should win for the sets and costumes, as they look magnificent on screen. From the bustle of downtown New York to the Dante's Inferno of the Valley of the Ashes, with a 3D model of the billboard of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg's Eyes of God watching the proceedings and our characters descent into hell. The film has some brilliant stereoscopic cinematography by Simon Duggan (who'd worked with Alex Proyas on I, Robot (2004) and Knowing (2009), as well as Die Hard 4.0 (2007)). The cinematography is unbelievable in places, and it has all of Luhrmann's usual zooms, swoops and portrait shots, epic in the parties, but close and intimate in the quieter scenes of the film. As in Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann employed CGI to create the world outside, and he uses it to bring New York back to swinging life, from a birdseye view in the sky, swooping down to street level, there's even a car race as well. There's even a few moments played for laughs, (there's one in every Luhrmann film), but he puts his characters first, and getting good performances from his actors.

As you all know, Luhrmann helped make DiCaprio a star with Romeo + Juliet and they nearly worked together again on Luhrmann's abandoned Alexander the Great. DiCaprio owns this part, giving his Gatsby charm and sophistication. There's something old school about DiCaprio's performance, it has a touch of Orson Welles about it, and he has the best character entrance of any recent film. Starting off with Carraway casually chatting to an unseen figure before this figure introduces himself as Gatsby, in epic style with fireworks and the final strains of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. DiCaprio's Gatsby is a mysterious man, but fast-talking and confident, which all comes undone when love comes into it. Tobey Maguire was an inspired choice for Carraway, a sweet and innocent young man who is thrown head first into this hedonistic party life, he's our storyteller, and he tells it years later as a broken man, brought to his knees by excess, Carraway can't believe the parties that go on in New York, and is infatuated by Gatsby. Carey Mulligan's Daisy fares less well, but it's not Mulligan's fault, Daisy Buchanan was always going to be a difficult part to bring to life on screen, but in Baz's intepretation of the novel, most of Daisy's backstory has been swept under the carpet in favour of it being all about Gatsby, but Joel Edgerton fares much better as Tom Buchanan, a boorish, unfaithful man whose short fuse will go off at a moments notice. He is a dangerous force of nature, and Edgerton is compelling. The film is nicely rounded out by Elizabeth Debicki's golfer gossip Jordan Baker, Isla Fisher as Tom's bit on the side, Myrtle Wilson, plus there's a memorable one-scene cameo by Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as Jewish gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, making his Hollywood debut with his scene stealing spot.



If you're going to compare Luhrmann to anyone, the closest equivalent is Ken Russell, who always had his foot on the accelerator and never took it off when it comes to his films design, stories and characterisations, indeed Luhrmann's Gatsby has more than a touch of 3 films Russell did in succession which all explored the pitfalls and hardships of excess and celebrity, Tommy (1975), Lisztomania (1975) and Valentino (1977). Plus, with the glitzy parties, there's also a touch of Francis Ford Coppola's One From The Heart (1982) here too, which was a glamourous fantasy with a dark heart, and was a big influence on Luhrmann with Moulin Rouge! The Great Gatsby stands as a loud, lavish and colourful epic, a cautionary tale on the dangers of excess. It's great to have Luhrmann back making films, although hurt by Alexander the Great not getting made and Australia (2008) floundering at the box-office, he's back with a vengeance, and he's picked the perfect book to adapt. Don't listen to the critics slagging off the film right, left and centre, they were expecting a straight adaptation, which many claim cannot be done justice on screen. They're wrong, Luhrmann has done justice to the book, giving it an interesting and compelling feel, grabbing your attention and letting you into this wild party, if you're wanting a straight and serious adaptation of The Great Gatsby, watch the other versions, you don't get that with Luhrmann's take, he gives the 1920's new blood. It's a grand visual epic, a great story and you won't forget this one in a hurry.
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