YOU JUST A COMMENTATOR
Baz Luhrman may consider himself a fabulist, but he’s an even better fantabulist. His films are drenched in sheer luminosity and crafted as overwhelming entertainments, yet they appear dizzily distant from palpable human reactions. An example: his romantic adventure Australia (2008) is an epic that believes in love but offers to settle for the comfort of gesturing at it from afar. (Same with the film’s namby-pamby well-intentioned racial politics, but that’s another longwinded blog post for another day.) Luhrman is obviously a man with a lot of heart and plenty of passion, but he throws both factors onto the screen and rarely works out how they will work successfully in tandem.
This year’s kinda-blockbuster The Great Gatsby is his most reasonable film – as layered a confection as his other films, but leavened with a healthy doze of cynicism lifted from its source material. The soft-focus, Lana Del Rey-soundtracked Dicaprio/Mulligan affair that pushes the story forward is well executed. However, the bitterness of its outcome helps Luhrman along as a storyteller. No longer does he have to sell-sell-sell the power of love, not when there’s crumbling American dreams and American lives that he can sell-sell-sell via gutsy juxtapositions of pop culture.
This means that a pitch-shifted version of NY rapper Despot ‘100$ Bill’ drowns out the sound of Amitabh Bachchan drawling wonderfully in a speakeasy. (Bachchan, probably the biggest movie star in the world, gets barely five minutes of screen time and an introduction nearly as over-the-top as Dicaprio’s fireworks extravaganza. It’s hilarious and worth the price of admission alone.) You have a white American chanting a mantra alongside Jay-Z’s timeless black cool, whilst a legend of Hindi cinema plays a Jewish gangster stereotype onscreen. It’s one of the most pleasant clusterfucks I’ve experienced in a cinema all year, a cross-cultural multiethnic celebration of men relishing the commerce of ill repute.
That has nothing on a scene about forty or so minutes into the film: narrator and audience surrogate Nick (Tobey Maguire, the purest emotional face in all of big-budget American film) scrambles to leave a party before being plied by offers of ladies, pills and alcohol. As he drinks, the voiceover paraphrases F Scott Fitzgerald’s prose: “I had been drunk just twice in my life, and the second time was that afternoon…” Maguire’s eyes bug open and the Throne’s mammoth ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ drops so loudly, its juddering bass shook the armrest of my seat.
With Gatsby and the hand of none other than Jay-Z, Luhrman and music supervisor Anton Monsted make decisions I have been dying to see in cinema culture. Hip-hop is the biggest musical genre in the world in terms of influence and record sales yet in cinema it is mainly tethered to inner city narratives or tired Caucasian irony. A month ago, I posted that Chief Keef’s ‘Love Sosa’ should soundtrack an Andrew Dominik film and I wasn’t even joking. It bores me to hear an entire genre of music soldered to specific cinematic genres and it bores me to hear few music supervisors take the chances on putting hip-hop in films. (Same with cinema culture’s treatment of metal, but that’s another longwinded blog post for another day.) So I applaud Luhrman and Monsted for their attempts, especially with ‘Who Gon Stop Me’, its drenched-in-money sheen making a surprisingly good match with the alcohol-fuelled jubilation of the Jazz Age.
While the juxtaposition of new and old/black and white/158th St Nicholas and 147 Mercer St is a thrill, it also highlights the problem of using hip-hop in an anachronistic manner. Like ‘100$ Bill’ and a goosed-up sliver of ‘No Church in the Wild’ in the film’s opening, ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ dashes around, rapidly flashing relevant Kanye lyrics before tuning out into its instrumental. It appears to be an attempt by Luhrman and Monsted to take control of the song, to make it serve the visual narrative. But ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ has its own narrative, one too tricky to fit into the world of Nick Carraway’s shellshocked drinking and Myrtle Wilson’s broken nose. That is truly unique in hip-hop’s DNA: it jumps from topic to topic, metaphor to metaphor, chasing its own tale and making its own story as it goes from verse to verse, a celebration of language with a penchant for the non-linear. The first lines of ‘Who Gon Make It’ survive Gatsby’s cut’n’paste job, making for a jarring moment where Kanye compares the treatment of black Americans to the Holocaust over Luhrman’s meticulously choreographed partying. The Holocaust lurks around the corner from the onscreen antics, a mere seven or so years away; the only black characters on screen are servants, dancers or hookers, descendants of the same race dichotomy Kanye yells about. The usage of ‘Who Gon Stop Me’ intriguingly propels Gatsby to another level whilst refusing to comply with the limitations set by the medium. Like the story’s narrator, it is “both within and without”.
CHRISTCHURCH - CITY CENTER - DAWN
Our HERO is camped among the hollow husks of buildings destroyed in savage internecine warfare. A fire crackles beside him and he appears well provisioned for the road.
CUE “LOVE SOSA” EMANATING FAINTLY FROM NEARBY RUINS
I have imagined films beginning this way, but they’re usually scumbag down-to-Earth gangster films. Still: someone should let Young Chop score an Andrew Dominik film!
Happy 70th, Frank White.
Walken’s best performance if you ask me, or at least the one many will remember him for.
In 2008 (oh my god that was FIVE YEARS AGO so pardon the quality), I wrote about King of New York for Den of Geek. If you have five spare minutes, read that shit; if you have ten, email them with anguished pleas as to why my name isn’t attached to that shit.
Toro Y Moi - Cola (off Anything in Return, 2013, Carpark)
This is on that Miami Vice speedboat-ponder wave right here (that wavering vocal sample in the background!). Chaz is that dude.
21 Jump Street (dirs. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012, US)
He busy, with Korean shit.
1. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s first film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, was a surprise, being not only funny but a mark of the duo’s directorial approach - taking a familiar American pop-cultural artifact and then juicing it for all its worth. Lord and Miller find the same comedic mileage in 21 Jump St, taking the thin TV-based conceit down as many detours as possible, like a gaudy drug trip or a running joke about bombastic action movie explosions. The delivery of the lines (rarely ever jokes) are particularly fascinating, a post-Apatow set of mumbly overlapping non-sequiturs littered with cursing. A lot of joy is found in the roundness of the word “fuck”, so much that it stings, becoming a punchline in its abrasion. Who could have envisioned that mainstream buddy-comedy franchises would get to this point, where ADD setpieces are tempered with “naturalistic” dialogue, dependent on trust between performers and the audience that these rambles and pauses will lead us somewhere?
2. Oh yeah, Ice Cube is in this and there’s a weird moment where ‘Straight Outta Compton’ plays and you are confronted with the voice of angry 19 year-old Cube. Then, seconds later you are confronted with the face of acting-angry 43 year-old Cube. We just can’t let the man age gracefully, can we? Did he bring it on himself with years of “yeay yeay”?
The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola, US, 2013)
1. That huge Veep advert to the right of the frame is hella distracting.
3. I do this every time a new Sofia Coppola film comes out and never see it. Feel free to call me out at the end of the year on this!
Rock of Ages (dir. Adam Shankman, 2012, US)
So Rock of Ages is not very good. You know this. You’ve heard all the best jokes already. But this image - coming at the end of Tom Cruise’s performance of a Def Leppard song - feels poetic in a way, a moment where the camera seems in awe that an actor is doing their damn job right, staying in character and devoted to the artifice. It is also the only moment where you feel like Tom Cruise is really playing a concert, way more effective than the crash zooms Shankman fills his musical moments with.
It doesn’t hurt to mention that Mary J Blige appeared on screen at the very moment I said “I wonder where Mary J Blige is right now? There are people she has to outsing!”