All that Jazz: The Great Gatsby

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With a starry, long-awaited version of The Great Gatsby opening this month, Geoffrey Macnab asks if Baz Luhrmann will succeed where other directors have failed in capturing the novel's magic

THE FILM

It is a classic American novel but the new 3D film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (which opens the Cannes Festival and goes on release in the UK on 16 May) was shot in Sydney by an Australian director.

A decade ago, Baz Luhrmann was aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, travelling across the Russian steppes, when he listened to the talking book of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age classic. Enraptured, he decided then to make a movie from the novel.

The Great Gatsby is a very short novel but Luhrmann has turned it into a very lavish, long and expensive film. It was made by a crew of 1,160 people and with a background cast of 960. The production budget is well over $100m – a huge amount for a film without any superheroes or icebergs in it. Much of the money has gone into the staging of the lavish parties that Gatsby throws in his huge Long Island home. Prada and Brooks Bros provided hundreds of party dresses and tuxedos. The film-makers even imported vintage 1920s cars from the US to Australia for the cast to drive.

Like James Cameron's Titanic, the Gatsby movie is arriving much later than expected and after several mishaps during production. The news that Luhrmann intended to make the movie was first reported by the trade press in 2008, at around the time of the release of Luhrmann's last film, the box-office disappointment Australia. The movie was originally set up at Sony, but the studio balked at the cost. In the end, Warner Bros and Village Roadshow took the project over. Although Leonardo DiCaprio was cast early on as Gatsby, many different stars vied for the other leading roles. Rebecca Hall, Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson were among the early candidates to play Gatsby's sweetheart Daisy Buchanan. Luhrmann eventually chose Carey Mulligan. Ben Affleck was originally attached to play her brutish husband Tom Buchanan but pulled out to make Argo instead. (In the end, the role went to Aussie actor Joel Edgerton.)

Shooting began in late 2011 but even then the production was dogged with difficulty. Heavy rain pushed back the schedule. Luhrmann was injured on set when he struck his head on a camera crane. The film was originally due to hit cinemas at Christmas 2012 in time for Oscar consideration but the release was put back amid rumours of re-shoots.

On the face of it, another film version seems a very bad idea. Paramount's lavish 1974 film, directed by Englishman Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, didn't capture the public's imagination in spite of the money hurled at it. The 1949 version starring the diminutive Alan Ladd as the enigmatic tycoon Jay Gatsby was stilted in the extreme. The 1926 silent version starring Warner Baxter is lost. All that survives is a trailer with tantalising snippets of lavish Long Island parties. More recently, Brit Toby Stephens played Gatsby opposite Mira Sorvino's Daisy in a 2000 BBC-backed TV drama adaptation dismissed by critics as “uneven” and “flat-footed”.

“Fitzgerald doesn't bring out the best in moviemakers,” The New York Times lamented in a review of the 1974 film. “The problem is that Gatsby really has a plot no bigger than a pea.”

It's dismaying how trite the novel's magical prose can become when transposed into dialogue or used to explain character. Many of the narrator Nick Carraway's reflections on Gatsby defy being transferred to screen. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away,” Carraway states of Gatsby early on. Either the screenwriter cuts such observations out altogether or feeds them into a clunky voice-over.

Even so, the continuing attraction of the novel for a film-maker like Luhrmann is obvious. This is a story set in the Boardwalk Empire era: the turbulent and hedonistic 1920s, just a few years before the crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression.

Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) excels at modernising period stories. By tackling Gatsby in 3D and throwing in music by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Will.i.am and Emeli Sandé, he is reaching out to a younger audience who may have little interest in Fitzgerald's novel.

“Baz was describing to me about the modern music in this version of Gatsby and he said, 'We've got to get the audience to feel how it must have felt to hear jazz for the first time at a party,” explains the director's wife Catherine Martin (also his costume and production designer) about the choice of modern pop stars.

DiCaprio himself has been quoted hinting that the film may not please all the lovers of the novel. “Everyone has their own personal attachment to this book and feels they know these characters on a very intimate level. But when you're making a movie, you have to be much more specific,” he said.

Luhrmann is taking a very considerable risk. If his film relies too heavily on glamour, it risks becoming as superficial as the hedonistic parties that Gatsby throws. If it lurches too far toward the darker themes, it risks alienating the mass audience a film of its budget needs even to break even. It's this tension, though, that makes the film such a fascinating prospect.

THE FILMS

by Geoffrey Macnab

1. The Great Gatsby (1926)

Only the trailer remains from the 1926 adaptation of Gatsby. Contemporary reviews don't suggest much enthusiasm although one critic admired the scene in which Gatsby (Warner Baxter) threw $20 gold coins into the water and a number of girls dived in after them. The same critic complained about a scene in which Daisy Buchanan (Lois Wilson) glugs back the absinthe. “She takes enough of this beverage to render the average person unconscious and yet she appears only mildly intoxicated...”

2. The Great Gatsby (1949)

Alan Ladd plays Jay Gatsby in this workmanlike adaptation which tells the story in a straightforward fashion through multiple flashbacks but strains out most of the lyricism and yearning in Fitzgerald's novel.

3. The Great Gatsby (1974)

Robert Redford seemed perfectly cast as Gatsby. The film had a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (stepping in for Truman Capote, who had failed to complete the task) and costumes by Ralph Lauren. British director Jack Clayton played up the snobbery in the novel. Critics paid tribute to “the fascinating physical beauty” of the film but the overall response from was lukewarm. For all its craftsmanship, the film seemed an anomaly in the era of Easy Rider and The Godfather. Paramount boss Robert Evans had developed the project for his wife Ali MacGraw but when she began an affair with Steve McQueen, Mia Farrow played Daisy Buchanan instead.

THE MAN

By John Walsh

In autumn 1922, F Scott Fitzgerald moved house with his wife, Zelda their baby daughter Scottie – and a bounding ambition. In July he had written to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, that he wanted to write something “new – extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” In October he and his family went to live on Long Island, the 120-mile landmass that stretches like an elongated stag-beetle eastwards from New York harbour.

They stayed in a village called Great Neck on one spur of a bay; among his immediate neighbours were Ed Wynn, the vaudeville star later famous as the laughing Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, and Ring Lardner, the sports journalist who was to inspire the character of Abe North in Tender is the Night. But on the other side of Manhasset Bay, the occupants were different. They weren't creative or comic types; they were seriously rich. The Island's north shore, nicknamed the “Gold Coast” had, in the late 19th century, become home to Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Guggenheims, and JP Morgan, whose elegant mansions were like royal palaces in east-coast America. These families epitomised “old money.” The writer's neighbours – the sports hacks and showbiz drolls – were seen as “new money,” and were sneered at by their betters

We can't be sure if Scott, Zelda and their baby visited the Gold Coast mansions during their stay. But Scott certainly knew they existed. For over the next few months he wrote a novel about two opposed Long Island villages called “West Egg” and “East Egg,” and created a masterpiece from the tensions between them.

It took a while to acquire the title The Great Gatsby. Its early working title was “Under the Red, White and Blue”. Later, equally off-putting titles were “Trimalchio” (after the banquet-throwing nouveau-riche freedman in Satyricon by Petronius) “Trimalchio in West Egg”, “On the Road to West Egg”, “Gold-Hatted Gatsby” and (a real stinker, this one) “The High-Bouncing Lover”. But Fitzgerald knew he was working on something special. As he polished successive drafts in 1924, he told Perkins the book was “about the best American novel ever written”. In the 88 years since its publication, many critics concurred. TS Eliot wrote to Fitzgerald in December 1925, saying “It has interested and excited me more than any novel that I have seen, English or American, for a number of years… it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

How can a short fiction (at 150 pages, it's hardly a novella) about a chap who gives grand parties and unavailingly loves a ditzy flapper, possibly be a contender for the Great American Novel? One reason is the brilliance of the narrating voice. It belongs to Nick Carraway, a young, well-connected Yale graduate and trainee bond dealer, who rents a small cottage beside Gatsby's huge mansion in West Egg, in which wild and extravagant parties are held every Saturday night. Though living among the “new money” parvenus, Carraway has a connection among the “old money” upper classes – his cousin Daisy Fay married Tom Buchanan, a rich, possessive, philandering, racist bully, who thinks nothing of introducing Nick to his mistress, and breaking her nose at a drunken party. And we gradually learn that Gatsby, the mysterious party-giver, has for five years been obsessively in love with Daisy.

Fitzgerald steers us through this brittle dramatis personae through Carraway's reactions. Carraway is a sophisticated man who doesn't care for the wealthy, leisured class. He describes how Daisy and Tom “spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully, wherever people played polo and were rich together”. But he also cannot stand the bad manners of the people who flock to Gatsby's parties, where “they conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with an amusement park”. About Gatsby himself Nick is ambivalent. At first sight, he finds him a collection of footling affectations, with his caramel suits, his “old sport” locutions, his recital of obviously bogus adventures. But as Nick learns about the trajectory of Gatsby's life – the years he spent making a fortune and buying a dream, all to impress the thoughtlessly posh Daisy – the more he begins to regard him as something rare and splendid. Sentimental and misguided, perhaps, but heroically romantic.

The theme of money looms large in the book: money as the key to love, the route to fulfilment, the badge of identity. Gatsby has sold his soul for money, linking up with the shady bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim. Carraway is studying in the new-fangled banking section called “finance.” Daisy's laugh is “full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it.”

Between the wealth and brittleness of Long Island, and the skyscrapers and ambition of New York City, there's another territory, however – a symbolic vision of hell called “the valley of ashes.” Fitzgerald's valley of ashes is the obverse of Gatsby's world, a foul and ghastly place with a petrol station where Tom Buchanan's abused mistress lives with her betrayed husband, is later imprisoned by him and fatally run over by Daisy and Gatsby. It's a vision of life without money, life with all the parties and fancy shirts and diamond dog-collars taken away; a place of poverty, to be speeded past in your fancy motor, stopping for nothing, not even death.

Cars play an important role in the book, although they were still recent phenomena on the American streets in 1925. Gatsby's car (“like a green leather conservatory”) is where he shares his secrets with Nick. Tom's car is where he introduces Nick to Myrtle. A drunken car crash in the driveway brings a Gatsby party to an inglorious end in a caterwauling of horns. Symbolic sightings are made of “south-east European” immigrants and chauffeur-drawn “modish negroes” – all through car windows.

Cars suggest a society in hectic transit and vital change, chasing money and success, doomed to crash in 1929, and throw America into depression and a western dustbowl, a real-life valley of ashes. Fitzgerald has been called many things, but perhaps not enough has been made of his powers of clairvoyance.

The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece because it gives us a vividly realised picture of a society lying to itself, its people all self-inventing or aggressively role-playing, collectively striving to give postwar America a sheen of excitement about the modern, the new New World where, if you keep drinking and dancing long enough, despair and failure can be ignored or eclipsed.

Fitzgerald's genius was to give us the big picture, but make us care about the figure at its centre, the biggest fake of all, the former penniless soldier James Gatz of North Dakota, “Mr Nobody from Nowhere” as Tom Buchanan calls him, who wasn't rich enough to live in the world of his beloved Daisy, and who invented a world that might, eventually, reel her in.

Just as young second lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald of the US infantry fell in love with Zelda Sayle at a country club in 1917, and was traumatised when she broke off their engagement because he wasn't rich enough to support her. The hurt he sustained was to flower, five years later, into a novel that condemns the shrillness of the socialite, and cautiously celebrates the romanticism of the obsessive.

THE FASHION

By Harriet Walker

You don't need to be a soothsayer to predict that the release of Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby this month will have us all reaching for our Flapper dresses and Mary Janes. No, all it takes is a glance at Carey Mulligan's gamine features peering out from under a Marcel wave in the trailer to know immediately that we'll fall under the spell of the Roaring Twenties yet again. Now where did I put my feather boa?

I say “again” because, in fashion terms, the allure of that decade of elegant excess remains undimmed, despite its ubiquity and – in some quarters – the hopeless amateurishness with which it is sometimes done. The Twenties, like the Sixties, are a decade that provide inspiration to every new generation of aesthetes and good-time girls, because the Twenties – like the Sixties – heralded the coming of the modern era. The stylings of these cusp-ish times feel daring but classic, and retro without being stuffy.

I also say “again” because Luhrmann's Gatsby has already inspired a taste for the decade, a trend that was huge last summer – because the film was originally slated for a 2012 release date.

The spring 2012 shows saw collections from the likes of Gucci's Frida Giannini, Roberto Cavalli and Marc Jacobs all mining that decade in chevron stripes, dropped waists, appliqué Deco motifs and a Jazz Age spirit.

Indeed, Miuccia Prada created several costumes for the film and the fashion crowd knows better than to argue with her. Alas though, in the time it has taken Baz to bring out his film, that industry visionary has since moved on to the Forties, by way of Samurai princesses and lino prints.

But Twenties chic – or what we think of as Twenties chic; I won't mention the General Strike or rickets or the reality for most of the populace if you don't – is where all our modern garments take shape. The rise to fame of one Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel really defines Twenties dressing in the mind's eye: flattering, functional, fun and no frills or froth. Minimal and modern – and for the first time since the Ancients, womenswear which wasn't restrictive, which allowed the wearer to move unimpeded, to stand up without fainting, to play sports even. All of which is right up our street these days too, of course.

Luhrmann's dithering in terms of a release date rather means he's missed the boat, when it comes to high fashion trends. But it's all over the high street and, in fact, the Twenties are written into our sartorial DNA. Those cropped summer slacks? Yep. The jumper loosely knotted around your shoulders? Oh yes, that too.

Harriet Walker is news editor of Never Underdressed

THE LEGACY

By Alice Jones

On 1 January 2011, the copright on F Scott Fitzgerald's greatest work expired. Since then, Gatsbys of all guises have been coming thick and – apart from Baz Luhrmann's Hollywood take, whose release has been delayed time and again – fast.

The renaissance kicked off in hardcore style with Gatz, by the avant-garde New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service. The show, which at nine hours lasted longer than the average working day, put every one of Fitzgerald's 48,891 words on stage. Every last “he said” and “she said” read out in a performance so epic that audiences were given two comfort breaks and an hour off for dinner. When it arrived in London last summer, it sold out instantly. The critics found it variously “transfixing”, “an epic achievement” and “a bit of an endurance test”.

Also in America, Tom Carson, a film critic for GQ, was quick off the mark with a spin-off novel, Daisy Buchanan's Daughter. Published in June 2011, it takes up the life story of Pamela – a toddler in the original – and uses it as the framework for a journey through the American century. Following Daisy's suicide, fearless Pam becomes a Pulitzer-nominated war correspondent who has an affair with Lyndon Johnson, hobnobs in Hollywood and winds up in her 80s, threatening to shoot herself in protest against the Iraq war.

In the UK, Peter Joucla's nostalgic theatre production was first to hit the stage last February. Taking place in the atmospheric Wilton's Music Hall, it requested its audiences to dress up in Twenties finery and offered Prohibition-era cocktails and Charleston lessons in the interval. As for the drama itself: “Diverting, but hardly definitive”, according to The Daily Telegraph.

It was followed in August by a musical at the King's Head, starring Matilda Sturridge as Daisy, with songs by Joe Evans (“Lyrics by F Scott Fitzgerald”). According to Linnie Reedman “the poetic descriptions narrated by Nick Carraway immediately translate into song”. The critics were less sure. “A woeful lack of sympathetic characters, a deeply flawed hero and a bleak ending are massive obstacles to overcome in song”, said The Stage.

That said, John Harbison's operatic treatment – panned on its premiere at the Met in 1999 – is enjoying a rebirth of its own, with performances in San Francisco, by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and next week at Carnegie Hall.

Might dance fare better with Fitzgerald? Northern Ballet's take premiered earlier this year and opens at Sadler's Wells later this month. A Jazz Age dash through the novel, it features two pairs of dancers as young Daisy and Gatsby and their older incarnations. “Tobias Batley is an elegant Gatsby, with smooth lines and a high, easy jump, but it's hard to be a figure of mystery when people keep popping up to explain your past for you”, said The Independent.

So far, then, Fitzgerald's text has proved peculiarly resistant to adaptation. A rare if unexpected success has been The Great Gatsby NES, a retro Nintendo video game, created by the San Francisco developer Charlie Hoey, in which a pixelated Nick Carraway is chased by “wacky waiters, dizzy drinkers and crazy dancers” as he searches for the mysterious Gatsby. When it launched online in February 2011, it was so popular, its website crashed for days on end.

THE MUSIC

By Elisa Bray

Jay Z can add a new job description to his list of credentials – executive producer on The Great Gatsby, for which he has produced the soundtrack. The rap superstar has collaborated with some of pop's biggest names for the soundtrack, inviting Lana Del Rey, Florence & the Machine, The xx, will.i.am and Nero to write new songs for the film. The names featured, including Beyoncé, certainly reflect the glamour and energy of the film, and its jazz-era setting is well-represented, especially by the music of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra whose The Jazz Age album was a hit last year. After hearing it, Baz Luhrmann asked Ferry to record some music for the film which captured the same spirit of the 1920s.

There are more contemporary takes on the genre too; from will.i.am's “Bang Bang” to Emeli Sandé and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra's insistently catchy jazzed-up version of Beyoncé's “Crazy in Love”. The xx provide “Together”, a melancholic, atmospheric, laid-back, strings-fuelled song that sits comfortably with their finest tracks to date. Lana Del Rey's “Young and Beautiful” and Sia's “Kill and Run” are tender torch songs, but it's Jack White's version of U2's “Love is Blindness” that packs the biggest emotional punch, transforming the original into a blistering track befitting the melodramatic love story of the film.

Additonal reporting by Annika Ranga

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