The Millionaire Waltz: Rekindling the ‘Roaring Twenties’ in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

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The eccentric, enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is literally the toast of the town.

With his leading role in Baz Luhrmann’s modern version of Romeo & Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio burst onto the Hollywood scene in grand style in 1996. So when the news spread that the charismatic superstar and the director of the Oscar-winning musical Moulin Rouge! would reunite for an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, expectations were enormous. How would the filmmaker’s flamboyant audiovisual style mesh with the source material, in itself a harsh criticism of its own raucous era, America’s ‘Roaring Twenties’?

New York, 1929: Former stockbroker and bond-seller Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is in a sanitarium for alcoholism and depression. As a therapeutic means, his doctor convinces him to write an account of how he got there. The journal begins with Nick’s move to a small house on Long Island seven years earlier, right next to the magnificent mansion owned by the incredibly wealthy but mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). After one of his legendary parties, the eccentric millionaire asks his new neighbor to do him a favor. Nick is supposed to arrange a meeting with his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives on the other side of the lake and is now married to a brutish philanderer named Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

Carraway learns that she once was the love of Gatsby’s life, before he went to fight in the First World War. Nick relents and invites Daisy to his tiny house, where she finally meets the rich man again after half a decade. As he allows Gatsby to lure him into his nouveau riche world, he sees that his neighbor, a once poor boy, has stunningly recreated himself as a fascinating, even spellbinding millionaire, and that his whole reinvention serves only one single goal – to win Daisy back. The events of a drunken afternoon, however, suddenly bring out a world of obsession, madness, and, eventually, tragedy.

In typical Baz Luhrmann fashion reminding us of the pyrotechnics in his own Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby is an audiovisual spectacle – loud, opulent, and just as intense as the decade it’s set in. That’s not a bad thing in itself, because the movie is quite a treat for the eyes and ears. ‘The novel wasn’t set in a period called ‘The Minimal Twenties.’ It was called ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ so it had to roar,’ the Australian director remarked in an interview, and his rendition of the story does, indeed.

Baz Luhrmann made the deliberate choice to use mix period music and contemporary tunes. While this decision might be a turn-off for some purists, it actually works in the film’s favor most of the time. The Great Gatsby is a real sight and sound to behold, especially in 3D. Moreover, an album comprised of such bestselling artists as Jay-Z, Kanye West,, Alicia Keys, Jack White, and the legendary Louis Armstrong will certainly generate some much-needed money for a project that went way over budget and apparently required expensive reshoots as well.

The extraordinary vision of Baz Luhrmann and his fine eye for details also show when it comes to set design and costumes. The Great Gatsby is splendid on this front. The wardrobe of the characters and the locations almost make you feel as if you were actually experiencing the ‘Roaring Twenties’ first-hand, as if you were right in the middle of the action. To a certain degree, it’s probably a sort of wish-fulfillment. Let’s not kid ourselves, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to participate in one of Jay Gatsby’s excessive parties – at least once?

In his luxurious Long Island home, the eccentric self-made man has essentially created his own Xanadu, only that his version is more similar to that of Charles Foster Kane than the stately pleasuredome decreed by Kubla Khan. Without the presence of the angelic Daisy or the regular bacchanalia Gatsby throws for everyone and their mother, however, the sumptuous mansion is just empty, lonely, and cold.

It loses its luster, and reveals the millionaire to be nothing but either a great pretender and a chiseling wannabe with great dreams or a brilliant illusionist. He is somebody who has actually accomplished the miracle of turning some of those exact dreams into reality – not for himself but for his one true love Daisy. Jay Gatsby may possess all the earthly riches under the sun. Each of them pales, however, in comparison to her. She’s the only thing he has ever really wanted – yet he has never had her, nor will the incomparable Daisy Buchanan be completely his at all.

The choice of Leonardo DiCaprio as the smart and, apparently, sophisticated rags-to-riches millionaire who is shrouded in mystery adds to Baz Luhrmann’s audiovisual spectacle. So does the rest of the cast. Acting is, in fact, one of the strong points of The Great Gatsby. Tobey Maguire is able to demonstrate that he’s long done with the Spiderman role, while Carey Mulligan shows that she can also hold her own in big-budget blockbusters. The Australian director even recruited fine actresses like Elizabeth Debicki and Isla Fisher for minor part as Jordan Baker, a golf star plus Daisy’s friend and Gatsby’s acquaintance, and Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, respectively.

All these positives of The Great Gatsby, however, unfortunately come with a price. While Baz Luhrmann has actually remained fairly loyal to the novel’s plot, he has also attempted to make the $105 million production more compatible with mainstream audiences. The result is a somewhat hollowed-out tragic love story set in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ that omits most of the book’s social commentary. True, it’s probably as romantic as it gets, and it looks and sounds great. Still you can’t help but feel that, in some aspects, The Great Gatsby is as shallow as the rich people and their lifestyle that Nick Carraway so harshly criticizes in Fitzgerald’s original version of the story.

In the end, it probably depends on your own expectations whether you like the movie or not. The novel has often been deemed unfilmable, and there’s some truth to it. Perhaps it’s therefore best to regard Baz Luhrmann’s rendition as an own entity that has just culled the title from the famous book and is loosely based on it. For fans of Leonardo DiCaprio and feasts for the eyes and ears, however, this latest release of The Great Gatsby is certainly a must-see. If there is one thing that most people would agree on when it comes to Baz Luhrmann, it’s that the man knows how to reenact classic material with style. You may not necessarily like it, but – for better or for worse – you will likely never forget it.

Seen at Cineplex, Limburg an der Lahn, Germany, on 1 June, 2013.