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Why Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ Is an Underappreciated Modern Classic

With new episodes of Baz Luhrmann's "The Get Down" about to premiere, we sing the praises of the director's under-appreciated masterpiece.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

“The Great Gatsby”

“Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can… of course you can.”

If Jay Gatsby had been born 80 or 90 years later, he could easily have run a movie studio instead of running booze — after all, repeating the past seems to be all that Hollywood really does these days. Of course, the film industry has always sustained itself by transfiguring history into images and then embalming them as culture (that business approach is baked into the medium itself, which allows artists to paint with time as vividly as they might with color), but there’s a vast difference between revisiting our memories and resigning to them; there’s a vast difference between looking at a green light across a misty harbor, and being so mesmerized by the promise of its fading emerald glow that it obscures the possibility of all other futures.

Once upon a time, Disney adapted classic fairy tales into lushly animated musicals — now, they just lazily transpose those musicals into live-action spectacles in order to exploit our natural inability to recognize the things that money can’t buy. And those aren’t even the same people who just tried to resurrect “CHiPs.”

“Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can” might as well be written out and framed above every studio executive’s desk the same way that Billy Wilder had “How would Lubitsch do it?” mounted above his. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, those words were the deluded mantra of a man who was doomed to chase a dream that had slipped between his fingers — for modern Hollywood, those words are practically a business plan. They didn’t work out so well for Gatsby, but it’s hard to resist the allure of “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us,” particularly when the money is coming in by the billions.

Needless to say, there’s something painfully ironic about making another version of “The Great Gatsby” in this climate, of exhuming the past in order to tell a classic story about the futility of exhuming the past. So when Baz Luhrmann’s cacophonous adaptation was released in the summer of 2013, many people — myself included — didn’t really know what to make of it. On the surface, it seemed like the worst of all possible worlds, The Great American Novel cranked up to the volume of a summer tentpole and boiled down to nothing but raw spectacle. But, as was the case with Fitzgerald’s book, time has been as kind to the film as it was cruel to its namesake. The more that Hollywood leans on the past, the more that the most improbable blockbuster of the 21st century emerges also emerges as one of its most fascinating and relevant — no other movie so thoroughly exemplifies the ethos of modern Hollywood, and no other movie so thoroughly rebukes it.

On the surface, Baz Luhrmann might seem like a strange choice to adapt “The Great Gatsby” — of course, it’s not like anyone else was pitching Warner Bros. on an $105 million, special-effects driven riff on The Great American Novel. But Luhrmann, a manic Australian aesthete whose career has been predicated upon the act of transmuting history into spectacle, has more in common with Jay Gatsby than he might care to admit.

Repeating the past (and then repaving it with the molten stuff of his singular imagination) is what Luhrmann does best — in some respects, it’s what he does, period. In “Romeo + Juliet” he thread Shakespearian iambic pentameter through an explicitly ’90s milieu, combining the feisty tribalism of Verona with the florid style of Venice Beach in order to restore the present tense to a tragedy that feels like it predates all of civilization. In “Moulin Rouge!” he captured the high-class hedonism of turn-of-the-century Montmartre (and effectively romanticized the poorer, more Tubercular people who made it possible) by dressing it up like a Bollywood musical and using a jukebox’s worth of iconic pop songs as a visceral emotional shorthand. That film repeatedly alternates between the transcendent and the insufferable in the span of a single cut, but its manic omnivorousness empowers Luhrmann to celebrate and exploit the timeless power of love stories. “Australia” was also a movie.

Few directors are so in tune with the strange vertigo of moving forwards and backwards in the same motion, few directors have evinced such a profound appreciation for how someone can be insistently modern and yet still find themselves entombed by the past. Who better to tell a story about a human anachronism, a man who’s reinvented himself into the wrong time? Luhrmann, always entranced by those exuberant pockets of history where nobody thought about tomorrow because nobody assumed that it was coming for them, is naturally drawn to the roaring ’20s. But it’s Gatsby himself who most compels him.

“The Great Gatsby”

The technology allows the film to repeat the past more perfectly than previously thought possible, but Luhrmann — who squeezes more computer-generated fakery into this story than anyone else could ever fit into a story about a bunch of rich white people living in Long Island — never aims for authenticity. He isn’t capable of it, anyway. On the contrary, his take on the literary classics finds other, more ecstatically truthful ways of expressing its fidelity to Fitzgerald’s landmark text. Using technology, music, and the sheer emptiness of raw spectacle, he translates the exuberant spirit of the Jazz Age for an audience raised on Jay-Z, and wedges a wide enough rift between style and substance for Gatsby himself to fit comfortably inside.

Originally conceived as a Virgil guiding readers through Fitzgerald’s frenzied pre-Depression inferno, Luhrmann recasts Nick Carraway as less of a tour guide than a quasi-Brechtian buffer, using the character to ensure that even the most enraptured viewers share his feeling of being both within and without Gatsby’s world. His presence calls attention to how the film is real and unreal, a lot and also much too much. “I was enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life,” Nick says, an observation that Luhrmann backs up by assembling the only soundtrack in movie history that includes Bryan Ferry, Jack White, Kanye West, and Gotye.

More than just making the ’20s feel vibrant and alive, this high-concept approach bluntly articulates how Gatsby uses modernity as an armor to protect his most private desires. It’s telling that the film’s most emotionally direct sequence is also its most anachronistic, Daisy falling back in love with Gatsby and frolicking around his rotted fantasy as a hyper-trendy Lana Del Rey ballad booms over their bliss (not for nothing, but “Young and Beautiful” is the song that she was born to sing). The closer that Luhrmann brings us into the reality of Gatsby’s dream, the further he pulls us out of it. Finally, in the most unlikely of places, the director has found a tragedy that invites his flair for contradiction, as opposed to just merely putting up with it.

“The Great Gatsby”

In the context of such a canonical piece of literature, every impossible visual (from the severely stratified road to Manhattan to the computer-generated distance between Gatsby’s dock and Daisy’s house), every Jay-Z needle drop, and every scene of new moneyed overindulgence (those flowers!) works to deepen the divide between past and present, the supposedly great man at the film’s center left floundering between the two sides that he’s so desperate to bridge. How better to illustrate that irreconcilable tension than by trying to render an immortal line of narration like “Boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past” in CG? How better to articulate the promise of the green light, and also the impossibility of reaching it? It’s never shined brighter, but it’s not even real.

The film’s intoxicating interplay between fantasy and reality extends all the way to its cast. On one hand, Gatsby screams for a famous face, and Leonardo DiCaprio was as obvious a choice in 2013 as Robert Redford was in 1974. On the other hand, DiCaprio’s presence is endowed with its own unique import. The last movie star of the 20th century, DiCaprio has since become the only movie star of the 21st (at least so far as the Hollywood galaxy is concerned), and “The Great Gatsby” affords him the destructive gravity of a dying sun. While Warner Bros. leveraged the actor’s unparalleled box office appeal to make “The Great Gatsby” an unlikely hit, Luhrmann used his enduring celebrity to create a character who was both mythical and hollow in equal measure.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” Nick says of Gatsby, “then there was something gorgeous about him” — DiCaprio may not be as carefully self-invented as the man he’s playing here, but the sheer power of his image makes him every bit as beautiful to behold. And while some films (e.g. “Catch Me if You Can” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”) have made it possible for DiCaprio to slip out of his own skin, others (um, “J. Edgar”) have proven just how difficult it can be for someone to escape that kind of straitjacket. Luhrmann splits the difference; he wants you to forget who you’re looking at, he never wants you to lose sight of how DiCaprio is playing Gatsby just like Gatsby is playing himself.

Shot right as the former teen heartthrob was rounding the corner into middle age, “The Great Gatsby” captures the flashbulb moment when an icon starts to become human, and for every moment where Luhrmann emphasizes DiCaprio’s natural glitz (immortalized in a character introduction brilliant enough to wrestle “Rhapsody in Blue” away from Woody Allen), there’s one where the camera seems determined to map the lines that are starting to crease across the actor’s face. This film may be more sympathetic to Gatsby than Fitzgerald ever was, but it’s just as unforgiving, and it encourages viewers to regard him with the same awed mercilessness that we always do celebrities.

The rest of the cast is similarly excellent. The way that Carey Mulligan says “Gatsby… what Gatsby?” is single-handedly worth the price of admission, and Elizabeth Debicki is an immaculate Jordan Baker — stiff and serene, she moves through the moneyed world of high society like it’s a dance to which she’s mastered all of the steps. Joel Edgerton turns Tom Buchanan into a racist bulldog with a bite that the character has never had before, and Tobey Maguire gets the job done as Nick the narrator, his blunt candor and “Pleasantville” guilelessness making him a natural confidant for Gatsby.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Baz Luhrmann movie if everything worked. The Perkins Sanitarium stuff is utterly useless, Luhrmann recycling the same lame framing device he used in “Moulin Rouge!” Pretty much everything with Isla Fisher is terribly miscalculated. The on-screen text — particularly when it gets to the iconic closing lines — is borderline unforgivable, and the less said about the bit where Gatsby says “Oooooooldddd sporttttt” in slo-motion, the better. But that’s the price you pay for one of his movies. Luhrmann, like Gatsby, is a creature of momentum and excess, and the story he’s trying to tell would instantly fall apart if he ever came up for some air. Luhrmann, like Gatsby, doesn’t have to be perfect, he just has to believe in the power of his own illusion.

But that’s where the similarities end. “The Great Gatsby”may be a product of a system that’s determined to repeat the past, but it’s made by a man who’s more interested in the ecstasy of reinventing the present. Hollywood might be focused on the green light, but Luhrmann is projecting his dreams directly onto the mist. “None of us contributed anything new,” Nick says, in a line invented for the film. But Luhrmann does — he saw the opportunity, I suppose.

New episodes of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” will be available on Netflix on Friday, April 7.

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