It’s official. My name can now be added to the long list of movie fans who got caught up in the craze of Director Baz Luhrmann’s release of The Great Gatsby. Blame it on the “man crush” I’ve had on Leonardo DiCaprio ever since Titanic. Leo’s Jack Dawson made me want to quit college, get on board a ship as a stowaway, go to Paris, become an obscure artist, meet a Rose DeWitt Bukater, and steal her away from her millionaire fiancé. He made being a poor artist look cooler than being a gangster or a tycoon. Fast forward 16 years, and you have, essentially, the same story. A poor guy falls in love with a rich girl, and somehow has to convince her that he’s the right man for her. He’s got to separate himself from the throngs of obviously more eligible bachelors and wealthy suitors. He goes on a quest. He painstakingly sets himself on a course of rigorous self-improvement. Instead of mastering drawing, he perfects the art of becoming a gentleman; and makes nouveau riche look cooler than inherited wealth. But this drama doesn’t unfold on the deck of a ship. Well, part of it does.
Before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book. Or I should say, I decided to re-read the book. I remember being assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school as a reading assignment. Probably about 5-10 pages into it, I thought to myself “why the hell do I have to read this?” I was an African-American teenager, living and attending high school in a predominately White neighborhood. Back then, The Great Gatsby was just a literary reminder of being Black in a White dominated world. As the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece echoes, The Great Gatsby reminded me of what it felt like to be invisible. I did not identify with the protagonist Jay Gatsby, because I did not grow up poor. I grew up middle class. The world of the aristocracy was not interesting to read about. I considered myself anti-establishment. I did not have aspirations to become rich. I think mostly, like other teenagers who feel like they’re social outcasts, I just wanted to be left alone.
Fast forward 20 years, and now when I read The Great Gatsby, I don’t necessarily see Jay Gatsby in the mirror, but I do identify with him. A little. Somewhat. I now know what it’s like to fall in love with a girl and lose her to a man who’s got money. I’ve had that experience. I know what it’s like to be poor, and want to move up the economic ladder to get the girl of your dreams. That’s every poor man’s fantasy. I identified with that hunger. I identified with that ambition. While reading, I hoped to soak up any vestige of fortuity still blinking, in this age of The Great Recession, of that “orgastic” green light that Fitzgerald so eloquently wrote about.
The best way for me to describe Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is to say that it is a movie of contrasts. From the start, this much is made clear. A grainy, black and white projection is used for the opening credits, giving them a very Nickelodeon feel. This nostalgic effect lasts only a few seconds, and gives way to a gilded makeover. As the opening credits go, so does the music. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra compositions used in the film constantly tangle with Executive Producer Jay-Z’s soundtrack. Normally, I prefer a period film to only incorporate music from the era being shown. Using Hip-Hop music in a Jazz/Big Band era at first would seem to be incongruent. And it is, from a musical standpoint. However, this incongruity helped to sharpen the contrasts between the lifestyles of the residents of East and West Egg, with that of the city (New York). The extravagant parties thrown by Jay Gatsby at his mansion look like scenes from rap videos-everything from custom luxury cars to expensive champagne. When the jazz music of the era plays in the film, all is gay. When the rap music blasts from the Dolby Digital Surround speakers in the movie theater, you can taste the excess and touch the decadence. No “old sport,” this is not your grandparent’s Great Gatsby. About half way through the movie, I noticed that an older couple, probably in their early 70’s, decided to leave the theater. I sort of chuckled, but in an understanding way. They were probably expecting Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw alone to handle the score. To be honest, so was I.
The film also presented a spectacular contrast between the living and working conditions of the rich and poor. The lush green acres of East and West Egg are paradise compared to the dry, gray ash heaps visible on the way into the city; where the sounds of steel driving hammers and gas pumps can be heard, workers are covered in soot, sweat and grease. But the East and West Eggers are wrapped in pink and white clothes made of the finest materials to be found in the entire world. It is class struggle in all of its cinematographic glory.
The only qualm I had with the film was that I did not get to meet Jay Gatsby’s father at the end. This was, perhaps, a minor omission by the film in comparison with the book. Still, it would have been nice to see Gatsby’s dad. But I’m just being a stickler, a purist. I generally enjoy the book better than the film adaptation. And this was no exception. That being said, and only having read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, I would strongly recommend it to lovers of the book.
And all that’s really left to say (and please excuse all of my “blushing”) is that once again, Leonardo DiCaprio turned in an extraordinary performance. By the end of the film, I think I was just as much in awe of Leo as Nick Carraway was of Gatsby. Maybe it’s because I don’t get invited to parties. I’m not what you call a cool or hip person. I don’t have lots of friends. I never was in the A crowd. (What a rant!) But when the movie ended, I felt like Gatsby was my friend. I felt privileged to get to know him, captivated by how mysterious he was, inspired to throw caution to the wind and dream audacious dreams, like being able to “repeat the past.” And yes, I’ve since adopted the phrase “old sport” and I plan to use it as often as possible. (OMG…I think I’m turning into Nick Carraway)