JOPLIN, Mo. —
This week singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey released the new song "Young and Beautiful" from the upcoming soundtrack to "The Great Gatsby," director Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation of the Great American Novel and future essential viewing for generations of high-school kids too lazy to read the book for class -- assuming books still exist in the future.
The new song by Del Rey sounds a lot like her older songs, slightly anesthetized and cloaked in vintage cool, as if she set her aural Instagram filter to "jazz speakeasy--1920s" and ran the song through it. From what I've seen of the film in trailers, it's a perfect fit for Luhrmann's lurid, oversaturated take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's tale of the American Dream curdling, and it should sound great booming from your local cineplex's speakers.
Listening to it, however, I'm not transported to the roaring '20s. Instead I find myself back in 1996 watching "Romeo + Juliet," the first time Luhrmann adapted a literary classic for the big screen. I have a vivid memory of watching Luhrmann's version of Shakespeare at the now demolished second-run Eastgate movie theater during the middle of a boring Christmas-break afternoon, a few days after I'd turned 16.
Here are some of the ways you knew "Romeo + Juliet" was cool in the '90s:
- The movie's title didn't have time for the Bard's use of a boring conjunction. Instead it used a cross, letting you know it's not afraid to play fast and loose with religious iconography. This ain't your parents' Shakespeare.
- The guys in the movie carried pistols that had the word "sword" engraved on them, in case you didn't understand there weren't handguns in Shakespeare's original play. My only complaint is that I wish the cars had said "steed" in a cool flame decal on the hoods.
- Angela from "My So-Called Life" was in it. You weren't sure if you bought her as "hot" yet, or even understood why Romeo was being such a whiny little daisy-boy about her, but you trusted her instincts as a relatable teen.
- You still thought Leonardo DiCaprio was soft as butter, though he rocked that open Hawaiian shirt.
- Romeo drops ecstasy. (Is "drops" the right verb? I didn't even realize what he was doing in that scene when I was younger. I thought Mercutio had given him aspirin.)
- John Leguizamo's soul patch.
- Juliet shoots herself, a gritty callback to Kurt Cobain. (RIP, K.C.)
- The dope soundtrack, which featured Garbage and Radiohead.
In many ways, Luhrmann's new movie could be called "Romeo + Juliet II: The Great Gatsby." Both movies star Leonardo DiCaprio, both turn literary works into opulent visual spectacles, and both place a significant emphasis on their stylish soundtracks.
And the "Romeo + Juliet" motion picture soundtrack was a juggernaut, selling 5 million copies and boasting numerous hit singles. It was a fixture in the mammoth CD wallets on the floorboards of friends' cars in high school, and proved so popular it spawned a second volume and a 10th anniversary reissue.
"The Great Gatsby" soundtrack, executive produced by Jay-Z, is gunning for a similar impact, featuring Beyonce and Andre 3000 covering Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," as well as contributions by Florence and the Machine, Jack White, The XX, and, uh, will.i.am. I'm guessing it will have a similar hit-to-skip ratio, too, with One Inch Punch, Munday and The Wannadies of the "Romeo + Juliet" soundtrack roughly analogous to Nero, Sia and Coco O. from "The Great Gatsby" soundtrack.
"The Great Gatsby" soundtrack won't sell as well -- nothing does these days -- and I doubt it will have a single as ubiquitous as The Cardigans' "Lovefool." But I hope it captures the same spirit of excess. (A theme that better fits "The Great Gatsby," anyway.)
If, like "Romeo + Juliet," Luhrmann's version of "Gatsby" feels more like an expensively art-directed music video than a movie, I'm fine with that. There is plenty of surface pleasure in the book, too, and after multiple summers of action blockbusters, mining great literature for flamboyant visuals that don't include explosions or superheroes should feel refreshing.
Even if we have seen it before.