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A version of this story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Baz Luhrmann doesn’t want the party to stop.
“They don’t call it the Polite Twenties — it’s the Roaring Twenties!” says the auteur on June 15, offering this reporter a glass of the homemade spiked “jazz lemonade” he smuggled in via thermos Prohibition-style to the 8th annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on New York City’s Governor’s Island.
It’s just past noon, but The Great Gatsby director, outfitted in period-appropriate tweed trousers and suspenders, newsboy cap and brown brogues, is itching to get his drink on. It’s his third year attending the festive, picnic-style event hosted by Michael Arenella, the dapper leader of the Dreamland Orchestra and an inspiration to the Aussie filmmaker as he worked on his decadent 3D film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
“Michael lives the twenties,” Luhrmann says of the lawn party’s pencil-mustached founder. “He’s in character 24-7. He’s a great musician, and this is a lovely event. After my [interview] duties are done, I’ll hit the jazz lemonade really heavily. This is a place where you can make a compete fool out of yourself and just totally enjoy it.”
Luhrmann certainly has reason to celebrate. Out on Father’s Day with his young son and daughter, along with wife and creative partner, Catherine Martin (a producer on Gatsby who oversaw set and costume design), he has just arrived from Tokyo, where he attended yet another Gatsby premiere before witnessing its ascent to the top of the Japanese box office in its opening weekend. Meanwhile, the film’s international take now totals more than $300 million, and the soundtrack, featuring Jay-Z (also an exec producer on the movie), Lana Del Rey, Jack White, Florence + the Machine and more, has been certified gold (marking sales of more than 500,000 albums) after debuting in the top-five of the Billboard 200.
And there’s more music to come. In mid-July, WaterTower Music will release Yellow Cocktail Music: The Great Gatsby Jazz Recordings on CD and vinyl, with a score album planned for later this summer. Of the 14 songs that make up Yellow Cocktail Music, which is available via iTunes, 11 are new tracks by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra — some of which are jazz-ified versions of songs from the first release — along with three licensed classics: Louis Armstrong’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Jelly Roll Morton”s “The New Orleans Bump” and Irving Aaronson & His Commanders’ “Let’s Misbehave.”
“I know my traditional jazz, because I grew up around a stepfather who had 14,000 jazz 78s,” Lurhmann explains. Along with Gatsby co-producer and music supervisor Anton Monsted, his movie maestro for 20 years, the director sought to create new pieces that would feel “authentic” and “credible” when side by side with the standards.
Yellow Cocktail Music‘s standout tracks are the ones Bryan Ferry lends his vocals to (his 2012 Jazz Age album was all-instrumental): the Orchestra’s re-imagining of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” and Amy Winehouse‘s “Back to Black.”
“‘Back To Black’ is a big favorite of mine,” Ferry tells The Hollywood Reporter via email. “We did a version that took it back into period. In the film, Baz weaves our recording with Beyoncé and Andre 3000‘s modern take.”
Back to Sunday’s flapper throwback, Luhrmann has switched from jazz lemonade to elder flower-liqueur sangria and is threatening to tear up the temporary dance floor that’s currently occupied by wannabe flappers and zoot suit-clad gentleman doing their best Charlestons. “If I am not thrown out of here by Mr. Arenella’s henchmen, I’ll be very surprised!” he jokes. But before that could happen, Luhrmann talks to THR about collaborating with Ferry, the genius of modern-day Gatsby, Jay-Z and more.
The Hollywood Reporter: So what is Yellow Cocktail Music?
Baz Luhrmann: It’s from [Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby] book: “The light grows brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music …” To me, it’s a great cocktail-hour album. You put it on to drink to, and the party has begun. Also, Fitzgerald uses color relentlessly throughout the book — lurid color. In the twenties, color was an explosion; color was a new invention.
THR: And yet this jazz album is pretty dark. “The New Orleans Bump” sounds sinister; “Can’t Repeat the Past” is forlorn. And Ferry’s “Love is the Drug” and “Back to Black” are particularly haunting.
Luhrmann: But isn’t that the paradox? There was a terrorist attack on Wall Street in 1920. It was anarchists. The next day, the bodies were cleared away and the stock market soared. The stock market was going up, up, up. There was this hubris, and prohibition was a shared hypocrisy. Everyone was sharing in a big lie. It brought upon a kind of moral discord which got itself into Wall Street — sound familiar? Therefore, everybody was an alcoholic. “Highballs, Mr. Gatsby?” It’s not even lunch!
THR: How did you come to work with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra on the movie and this jazz album?
Luhrmann: It was unbelievably serendipitous. In a million years, I would never have thought Bryan Ferry would have had this jazz orchestra. We thought we’d get our band in New Orleans or something. Jay and I did the first album with Anton, but the whole idea was to weave that with traditional jazz. So I just sent him a note, saying: “Bryan: Baz. How about it?” He doesn’t sing on [the Bryan Ferry Orchestra album, The Jazz Age], but as we progressed on the film, I said, “Bryan, you’ve got to sing.” He was like, “Oh, I don’t know …” Next thing, he did vocals for “Back to Black” and “Love is the Drug.”
THR: “Love is the Drug” takes on a totally new meaning when you think of it in terms of Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.
Luhrmann: For Gatsby, love is the drug. Not only that, he’s addicted so badly, he’s heading towards tragedy. If love is the drug, he is the drug addict.
THR: Ferry’s vocals on “Back To Black” sound like a funeral procession. How did that version come about?
Luhrmann: It was Jay-Z’s idea. He’d heard an interpretation that was very not like Amy’s. It was this really heavy beginning: “bump, bump, bump, bump …” Bryan copied that construct. He sings it like this ghostly, older vocal. It’s like the ghost of the tragic soul of the Twenties singing. The first part of the film is seductive, decadent, crazy — it’s sexy, it’s fun. “Back to Black” plays in the beginning of [a] scene where it’s starting to transition from all of the razzamatazz to the tragedy of it. We needed a piece of music that would totally change the movie at that point.
THR: The pop/hip-hop, jazz and score albums are all being released separately, but in the movie all three are layered on top of one another. Ever think about releasing that version?
Luhrmann: I’d love to do a concept album at the end, where I do what I did in the film. That’s what I want for the Blu-ray: a version without dialogue of the movie, so that the weave is just constant. Now, it’s very complicated because of the deals: There are so many musicians involved. But I’m in a place these days where I can get that sort of thing done.
THR: And you have to expect that sort of thing when you sign on to be a part of a Baz Luhrmann picture, right? You do things differently.
Luhrmann: When I went and saw Jay two years ago, I said, “Look, we’re going to do things that no one’s ever done.” That’s the attraction: We’re doing in cinema musically what they can’t do in their particular environment. If Fitzgerald lived in the jazz age, we live in the hip-hop age, and he’s the chairman of the board. But to use hip-hop to tell a story? That’s a whole other discipline, a whole other adventure.
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