From Flappers to Rappers: 'The Great Gatsby' Music Supervisor Breaks Down the Film's Soundtrack
“I never in a million years imagined that all those wasted teenage years when I listened to music and memorized what was written on the album sleeves, that it would become my vocation,” says Anton Monsted, The Great Gatsby’s executive music supervisor and co-producer. He has been fellow Aussie Baz Luhrmann’s right-hand man since graduating college at 21, going to work for his Bazmark production company as an office assistant and researching Elizabethan text for Romeo + Juliet. Monsted went on to become the music supervisor and music producer for Moulin Rouge! and is half of BLAM, the name he and Baz use for their musical collaborations.
Monsted and Luhrmann’s latest collaboration, the much buzzed about Gatsby soundtrack, is perhaps their most ambitious yet. The idea to fuse traditional jazz with modern-day hip-hop, sometimes in the middle of a song, came from Luhrmann after Leonardo DiCaprio introduced him to Jay-Z, who was recording “No Church in the Wild” at the Mercer Hotel for his Watch the Throne album with Kanye West. Immediately the song was commandeered for the film, as was Jay-Z himself, who agreed to contribute music -- though his participation eventually earned him executive producer credit for the soundtrack. He identified with the aspirations of the movie’s title character, who mirrored the hip-hop fascination with money, power, violence and sex.
“We wanted a blend, a weave,” explains Monsted. “Baz and I call it the ‘sliding doors’ between music that is very true to the period of the movie’s setting in 1922 and the music of today. When F. Scott Fitzgerald evoked the popular music of his period, he was criticized because jazz was ephemeral, of the moment. We revere that music now because 80 years have passed. We regard it as a serious art form unto itself. For Fitzgerald, it was ‘the racy, adventurous feel of that music’ in that time.”
The meeting between Luhrmann and Jay-Z set the wheels in motion for what would become that hybrid. Says Monsted: “We had to figure out how to address jazz in the film with the score … Are we going to have a classical underscore? Is it all going to be hip-hop or pop? All those questions swirled around, and then, out of the mist, the answer started to appear. At a very early stage, Jay-Z expressed his enthusiasm to come aboard, and he’s been a very solid collaborator and partner on everything in the film, not just the music but across the board.”
Certainly The Great Gatsby reflects that hothouse sensibility, with Jay-Z’s “100$ Bill” and “No Church in the Wild” establishing the stylized past we’re glimpsing through modern beats. That hybrid comes across most clearly on retro-modern songs that fuse old and new like will.i.am’s “Bang Bang” and Fergie, Q Tip and GoonRock’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got),” both songs that fuel one of the movie’s two gala party sequences. Eccentric covers like Beyonce and Andre 3000’s version of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and Emeli Sande and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s throwback take on Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” recall similar Luhrmann mash-ups like Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim, Mya and Pink’s take on “Lady Marmalade” or David Bowie warbling “Nature Boy” in Moulin Rouge!
The album’s centerpiece -- and certainly the film score’s -- is Lana Del Rey and Rick Nowel’s “Young and Beautiful,” which repeats throughout the movie, a haunting, sad lament for the ill-fated Gatsby-Daisy romance that mirrors the singer’s own poor-little-rich-girl persona.
With the soundtrack and box office off to a fast start on the charts, Anton Monsted took some time out from waiting for the opening night grosses to give The Hollywood Reporter a track-by-track breakdown of the album.
Jay-Z, “100$ Bill”
“Jay-Z worked on that song after seeing an early scene in the speakeasy. Symbolically, the speakeasy is a location that speaks to the idea of corruption, wealth and power. And also the idea of a blurring of moral lines between what’s illegal and socially acceptable -- because you’re drinking alcohol, which at the time was against the law. The tracks that are most satisfying to us as filmmakers are the ones where the music is born out of the film. That was an instance where Jay came and actually wrote the song to picture, as a direct response to the scene. It works brilliantly both on the album and in the film.”
Beyonce and Andre 3000, “Back to Black”
“We have to thank Jay-Z for bringing this into the overall thinking. He worked with us on the second party in the movie. The first party is a gaudy, rich, Venus flytrap of a celebration designed to attract Daisy’s interest by physically bringing the entire city of New York to Long Island. The second party is one that Daisy does attend, but at this point in the story, we were looking for a musical direction that alluded to darker things beneath the surface. We were looking for a song that would speak to the almost ‘Sid and Nancy’ addictive love that Gatsby and Daisy have found themselves re-engaging in.
Everybody knows the Amy Winehouse version of this song, and I think this is a very interesting interpretation. It plunges you further into this particular kind of lovesickness. I think it works very well in the film, where it blends between a jazz recording that The Bryan Ferry Orchestra did and the version on the album with Beyonce and Andre 3000. That combination helps to deepen the resonance of what the song is telling us.”
will.i.am, “Bang Bang”
“Will.i.am met with us very early on, before we even had a screenplay or had shot a frame. He and Baz connected on this idea of exploring the jazz vernacular with much more modern beats and textures. It was sometime later that he sent us this track as an answer to some of those earlier conversations, and it fit perfectly into the party scene. It’s a very sophisticated pop song that works very well.”
Fergie, Q Tip and GoonRock, “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)”
“This one is kind of a parallel expression to ‘Bang Bang.’ It appears during the very same party scene. It’s one where we looked to create a song with very contemporary rhythms and beats, in conjunction with some period elements that remind us of the Jazz Age setting. And hopefully, again, in the final film, people will hear the weave between 1922 and 2013.”
Lana Del Rey, “Young and Beautiful”
“There is certainly a connection between Lana and the character of Daisy. This is a song that underwent a long evolution so that we could re-echo it in many places throughout the film, particularly in Craig Armstrong’s score. As a musical motif, it’s repeated and developed throughout the film much like it would be in an opera. The lyrical development of the song helped to ground it in the world of the film. Lana chose a very clever way of wrapping universal pop lyrics around universal themes, but somehow her lyrics fall in beautifully with the themes of the film. Musically, I think it’s an unusual song, because on the one hand, it has romance and tells a love story, but at the same time, it’s filled with real yearning and melancholy, which I think is at the heart of the story, whether you’re looking at it from Gatsby’s or Daisy’s point of view. There’s a real sadness in the story, and that’s reflected beautifully in this song. There’s a fox trot version of the song, which plays at one of Gatsby’s parties. You can’t watch the film without hearing this song about a dozen times.”
Bryan Ferry with The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, “Love is the Drug”
“Bryan and The Orchestra came aboard to work with us as the sound of 1920s traditional jazz. Up until their involvement, we had used a lot of old recordings, which were distracting when you put them up in a movie theater because they’re crackly, mono, and hard to make believable. If you’ve got a band playing new recordings, it’s a lot better. For the past two years, Bryan has been working passionately on this project. He wanted to evoke the sound of Fitzgerald’s world and celebrate the sound of the ‘20s. It’s been a perfect fit for us. This was one of his suggestions and it’s obviously a well-known Roxy Music song. When he brought the idea to us, we were looking to replace a 1920s recording we had in there. And he suggested doing the song in that style. It turned out brilliantly.”
Florence + the Machine, “Over the Lover”
“That song comes in at the end of the first party, when Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is feeling the way you do at the end of a long night. He’s lying on a sofa staring up at the ceiling in one of Gatsby’s opulent rooms, and there’s a sad woman in a red dress lying on a piano trying to sing. We wanted to work with Florence on an original song, and she came in and wrote to picture to develop a song she had begun prior to seeing the scene. When she saw it and began to work with Baz in the studio, she sang to the image, which is a pretty unusual work process these days. It takes a brave performer to put themselves into the act of storytelling. There’s a wide gulf between making music for music’s sake and making music to serve the story. That collaboration really bore rich fruit. The song works dramatically in the film and beautifully as an album track.”
Coco O of Quadron, “Where the Wind Blows”
“A new song born out of an old song, one which plays during the second party called ‘Oh, You Have No Idea,’ performed by a songwriter named Andrea Martin. She cut it up into several samples, then reinterpreted it as a new melody, which is “Where the Wind Blows.” That has a small placement in the film at the end of the speakeasy scene. Sometimes a song comes your way which is an outgrowth of the film itself, and you just have to use it. It comes from an old period recording that we used to shoot to.”
Emeli Sande and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, “Crazy in Love”
“The song is used in a scene to express a comic, heightened nervousness as Gatsby is anxiously waiting to be reunited with Daisy over tea at Nick Carraway’s bungalow. We wanted to let the audience know it was OK to have a laugh because it’s an amusing scene meant to show you Gatsby with butterflies in his stomach -- his vulnerability. Lyrically, we loved this idea that he is crazy in love. We just liked the playfulness and quirkiness of this interpretation. Between Bryan Ferry’s jazz arrangement and Emeli’s performance, it really hits the mark. It’s quirky and charming, like Gatsby is in that scene.”
The xx, “Together”
“Baz and I are big fans, and we pursued them for a period, hoping they’d have something to contribute. We didn’t want to use a well-known track of theirs, but we never thought we’d get a new song from the band. At the time, they had a new album coming out and suggested a song from that, which we used, and were quite happy going down that road. And then, quite out of nowhere, they sent us a new song and told us they’d been watching the scene and this was their take on it. The song they wrote for us is far more enmeshed in the kind of story we’re trying to tell. They came in and worked with us while we were recording the score in London, playing their guitars over some of Craig Armstrong’s music. There’s a little guitar riff which reappears over and over in the film to express what Baz calls ‘gangsta love.’ Every time we see a more mysterious side of Gatsby, where you ask, ‘Who is this guy?’ there’s a little whisper of those riffs in the score. Talk about performers being brave. The xx showed up in the studio in London and worked with us very directly, doing these riffs to picture, and we’re very happy that the song doesn’t just appear as a needle drop once. It’s peppered throughout the fabric of the underscore.”
Gotye, “Hearts a Mess”
“When Baz and I start talking about music for a film, we touch upon songs that we both have a relationship to. That’s part of our collaboration, a shared love of music. He hones in on certain numbers as ‘storytelling music’ that’s inherently dramatic. We knew about this song 'Hearts a Mess' way back when we were making Australia. It had been in our shared subconscious, and we were looking for an opportunity to use it. Strangely, in the film, it’s been part of the journey all the way through -- so much so, it appeared in several of the score cues. And it’s quoted as a theme, but we only hear it as a full song over the end credits.”
Jack White, “Love Is Blindness”
“It appears in the movie at the moment where Myrtle (Isla Fischer) is run over by the car, during the accident. It’s an interesting piece of music. There are plenty of songs that articulate male pain, but this one seemed to communicate a masculine suffering so brilliantly and immediately in the fabric of Jack’s voice, the way the song is produced and the guitars. Once it found its way into the world of this film, we never turned back. It’s a strong piece of work.”
Nero, “Into the Past”
“Another original created for the movie. We met with Nero midway through postproduction. They’re electronic music creators who also use a great many textures that are familiar to our ears in the sounds of Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis and Kraftwerk, pioneers of an earlier era. Baz and I love their music and we used some as a temp score to bring an electronic edge to the film, in addition to what Craig Armstrong brings, which is a classical symphonic sensibility. We had Nero remix and do additional work on about half a dozen score keys in the film. They particularly got involved in the music around Gatsby’s death. What we see in the film is a collaboration between Craig Armstrong’s score and Nero’s textural work. This song is the next development from what they did in the score, taking some of Craig’s melody and developed it into a fully fledged song, an echo, a reminder of Gatsby’s death in the film.”
Sia, “Kill and Run”
“Baz and I have wanted to work with Sia for some time and asked her to bring songs or music to a couple different scenes. Ultimately, what she brought was the perfect end credits song, because it asks you to reflect on what you’ve been watching for the last two hours … and hopefully how you’ve been feeling for that time. We’ve had the great good fortune on Romeo + Juliet to have Radiohead’s 'Talk Show Host,' and again, it was an end credit song that reflects on the film in a global sense. I think Sia’s song does the same thing. Baz and I are music lovers, and we love albums. I know in this age of single song downloads and Spotify -- and we’re not such Luddites that we don’t indulge in that ourselves. There’s something about setting out with an ambition to make an album that could stand on its own. What we’re trying to do is recapture for ourselves the thrills we’ve had in our lives as music lovers. You do go on a journey with this album.”