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Lana Del Rey
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Lana Del Rey

Off track

Music | Major soundtracks fail to live up to—or in one case down to—their films

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

“‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.

The narrator, Nick Carraway, is recalling WASP wisdom imparted to him by his father. After listening to Music from Baz Luhrmann’s Film The Great Gatsby (Water Tower/Interscope), however, one suspects that even Carraway the elder might’ve been willing to make some exceptions.

Among the advantages that the contributors to Luhrmann’s soundtrack apparently haven’t had is immersing themselves in either Fitzgerald’s novel or the music of the Roaring Twenties, aka the Jazz Age (Gatsby’s setting).

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Whereas the novel coolly assesses “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” Jay-Z (earning the album an explicit-lyrics warning) and Jack White (covering U2) declaim and wail from beneath decades of anachronistically irony-coarsened desperation.

And whereas the Jazz Age gave rise to the glories of the Harlem Renaissance, will.i.am and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry do little more than freebase the ’20s’ most obvious musical trademarks and inject the results into pop conceits from the ’60s (“Bang Bang”) and the ’70s (“Love Is the Drug”), respectively. Retro has seldom sounded so kitsch. 

From a money-making point of view, Luhrmann’s strategy is as foolproof as it is obvious. Cram a bunch of Grammy types aboard a hubristic musical luxury liner, and, even if it turns out to be the RMS Titanic (two can play the anachronism game), the eventuating omelet will have been worth the broken eggs.

The soundtrack does, however, have one redeeming quality: Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” A measured meditation on the very mutability that functions like an undertow in Fitzgerald’s fiction, it gathers meta-momentum from the fact that, like Daisy Buchanan herself, Del Rey is, down to the smallest detail of her carefully crafted image, a product of the male imagination.

If Beyoncé, Fergie, and Florence Welch had managed to convey the solidity of either Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker or Myrtle Wilson, Luhrmann might’ve had something.

There are similar chinks in the armor of Iron Man 3: Heroes Fall—Music Inspired by the Motion Picture (Hollywood).

Who cares, some media mogul must have surmised, that the dozen tracks don’t even appear in the film? Surely all that will matter to the final remnants of the last generation willing to pay for music is that Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees contribute one track apiece and that the whole shebang sounds like something that Tony Stark’s child sidekick Harley Keener might not mind storing on his iPod—that is, until he hits puberty.

This cinematic franchise deserves better.

The Source Family, on the other hand—an underground documentary about a post-Woodstock, radically utopian Los Angeles hippie cult—probably deserves worse than its eponymous, Drag City Records soundtrack, which at its farthest out sounds like a collection of outtakes by such perennially fascinating countercultural weirdos as the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders.

Under the leadership of the WWII veteran Jim Baker—aka “Father Yod” (pronounced “Yoad”)—the Source Family, whose membership peaked at around 300, practiced vegetarianism, hirsutism, syncretic Eastern mysticism, and polyamory.

But its musical members, under the name Ya Ho Wa 13, also made records, nine of them in fact. The prevailing spirit was one of making it up as they went along. “It’s all improvisation, you know,” announces a Family member at the beginning of one track. “We have not rehearsed a thing!”

At least the Source Family never claimed that Yod, who died hang gliding in 1975, rose from the dead.

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