POSTED April 21 2013

Retro stories + contempo soundtracks = ?

Carey Mulligan nd Leonardo DiCaprio in :uhrmann's "The Great Gatsby"

Carey Mulligan nd Leonardo DiCaprio in :uhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”

If you’ve been at the movies lately you’ve seen the trailers for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Like his Moulin Rouge,  which was set in the early 20th century and boasted pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s, Gatsby is set in the Jazz Age 1920s and has a distinctly contemporary soundtrack assembled by Jay-Z and including artists such as Fergie, and Florence + the Machine.

While it’s unremarkable for a modern story to feature a soundtrack with classical music (think of how Terrence Malick used Mahler’s soaring First Symphony to accompany Tree of Life), contemporary music overlaid on a retro story packs a disjunctive, post-modern  jolt.

I’m thinking David Bowie’s 1980s-era “Cat People” used in  Quentin Tarantino’s World War II-era Inglourious Basterds. Or Gang of Four’s 1979 “Natural’s Not in It” used in Sofia Coppola’s 1779 Marie Antoinette. Or the 1970’s arena rock such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You” used in Brian Helgeland’s medieval-era A Knight’s Tale.

I’m of two minds about the use of contempo music over retro stories. Wrestling with the question of whether this anachronistic music used to kosher the films for younger audiences who may be wary of costume dramas. Or whether he use of the music is an implicit argument that the emotions stirred transcend time?

Thoughts? Other examples of contempo soundtracks in retro films?



  1. ratzkywatzky says:

    Don’t mind most of the examples you named, but you know what bothered me at the time and bothers me even more now? Chariots of Fire! Seemed wrong in 1980, and now Vangelis’ score sounds dated as well as thin and anachronistic. And I say that as a big Aphrodite’s Child fan.

  2. Anachronistic music is successful, in my opinion, only in one direction: great old music can transcend time and evoke emotions in modern settings/stories. The other way, NAH! The Piano was ruined by new age music which I wish had been deep sixed instead of the piano!
    Anachronistic expressions, ditto–old ones are OK, but the reverse never works. And, sadly, it is contemp expressions that young writers unkowningly
    insert in old mouths. Hrumph!

  3. I’m happy to see anyone try anything. Gifted people can come up with unexpected, but provacative and enlightening, juxtapositions and arrangements. I don’t know whether I’ve ever enjoyed a movie less than Moulin Rouge. The intersection of the untalented Jay-Z and The Great Gatsby makes me cringe.

  4. I don’t think it’s just the music that’s the problem. It’s making a classic work of literature 3D for no good reason. Also, there are many such as I who just can’t stand Baz Luhrmann because he has the attention span of a gnat. Moulin Rouge drove me up the wall because he’d never let a song finish before launching into the next one. Aside from the inspired moment of Jim Broadbent singing “Like a Virgin,” it was a chore. It also wasn’t very original. Gee, he segues from “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to “Material Girl.” How’d he come up with that? I don’t know — perhaps from Madonna’s “Material Girl” video years earlier which basically staged her song to Monroe’s number. Let’s not forget the subtlety of Kidman’s TB cough either. For Moulin Rouge, give me John Huston and Jose Ferrer. For The Great Gatsby, anyone who wants to see it should be required to read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece first.

  5. Sam Scott says:

    I must admit, I cringed a bit watching the trailer. In a way, I would have preferred juxtaposing the ‘original’ pop tunes against the picture, (though that too is a one joke endeavor), rather than these self-conscious and pretentious rehashes by new performers. Perhaps they should release an added version with the Blu-ray that has an original score by someone accomplished. Of late, I’ve really enjoyed the work of Jeff Beal, who scored the American ‘House of Cards’ series for Netflix as well as ‘Rome’ for HBO several years ago.

    Given the choice, I’d take Bernard Herrmann over Jay-Z any day, but I don’t fault Baz for a bit of experimentation. I’ll watch the film in its entirety, allowing me to get into the groove of the music juxtaposition, then pass judgement. These things either tend to work or simply fail miserably.

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