Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang Daily music columnist.
“The Great Gatsby,” as interpreted by the always-subtle and understated Baz Luhrmann, presents the whirlwind of Roaring ’20s opulence. Prohibition had just been lifted, and it was a time of golden spectacle. The stock market boomed and parties were filled to the brim with high-flying flappers, long cigars and Kanye West songs.
It would seem that you sacrifice a little bit of historical authenticity in exchange for having Jay-Z on board as a producer for your movie. Jay-Z was happy to dish out soundtrack spots for his buddies (and his wife Beyoncé, in a happy bit of nepotism).
Over the past few years, big-budget soundtracks have been something of a popularity check. The Twilight movies have turned into some sort of Farm Aid for rock bands on the cusp of the mainstream. The saga started with Paramore, and moved dutifully through the series, soliciting original songs from Death Cab for Cutie, Metric, Joy Formidable, Passion Pit and St. Vincent. Interesting choices, considering a Venn diagram of Twi-hards and St. Vincent fans is probably close to two separate circles.
So why do these producers shell out the money for these special collaborations?
Soundtracks (with the exception of those of musicals) don’t generally break into the Billboard Top 10. Is it an attempt to gather indie cred? Even “The Hunger Games” coaxed original tracks out of Arcade Fire, Neko Case and The Decemberists.
Maybe it’s a hype-builder. Quentin Tarantino’s excellent “Django Unchained” got a bit of pre-release press when news broke that Rick Ross would be writing a song for the soundtrack (and that the Frank Ocean song would be cut).
But Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins” works effortlessly over a movie set in the 1850s, while Luhrmann’s soundtrack is an anachronistic mess. Why?
The proper pairing of music and movie can give a song a whole new meaning. You’ll never hear Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” the same way after seeing “Reservoir Dogs.” “Garden State” turned a generation of kids onto The Shins when Natalie Portman melodramatically promised they’d change Zach Braff’s life. It’s impossible to listen to “Twist and Shout” without thinking about that smile on Ferris Bueller’s face.
Directors take a lot of care when hand picking their music. They’re not worried about how the album is going to sell; they’re focused on the theater audience.
Is the music playing over the top of the scene, or is it heard within the scene from a boombox or car radio? What tone does the song invoke? Do the characters interact with the song? Established songs, as opposed to an instrumental score, have an ability to strike a chord with the audience on a cultural level, and they can be better used to recall an era or establish a mood since the audience might already be familiar with the song. A delicately selected song can subtly change the mood without the BWAAAAAAMMMMP of a Hans Zimmer score.
Most original songs in a soundtrack throw that careful selection out the window.
Matt Bellamy of Muse probably has very little vested interest in “Twilight.” He gets paid to write a song with probably no more instruction than to make it sound vampire-y, and now the director has to awkwardly shoehorn this mediocre track into his movie because his studio already paid a boatload for it. Everybody wins.
Of course, there are always exceptions.
Adele’s entry into the hallowed halls of James Bond credit crawls comes to mind as the most recent example of an original song for a film done right.
Movie soundtracks have also become an unlikely home for rock refugees. Eddie Vedder has a Golden Globe and Trent Reznor has an Oscar.
Ultimately, a song’s success or failure in a movie depends on its context in the movie as a whole, and the thought that went into its selection. “100 Black Coffins” works largely because it contributes to one of the major themes of “Django Unchained” — racial identity.
When the camera flies over Gatsby’s mansion to the tune of “No Church In The Wild,” however, the audience is taken out of the movie. The juxtaposition of Kanye West over the Jazz Age serves no purpose, except for a fairly pathetic stab at relevance.
Who knows? Maybe “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack will sell 10 million albums and Jay-Z will have fulfilled his underlying goal of becoming even richer. As a commercial venture and a hype generator, the soundtrack may well succeed. But on the big screen, it’s a failure.