Although a good deal of the most recent Great Gatsby’s soundtrack is comprised of contemporary hip hop and pop, there is a breathtaking moment in the film in which director Baz Luhrman uses George Gershwin’s 1924 jazz-classical music composition, Rhapsody in Blue, almost as memorably as Woody Allen did in his film, Manhattan. Allen opens Manhattan with black-and-white shots of the city accompanied by Rhapsody in Blue, making the city itself as vital a character in the film as Allen and Mariel Hemingway.
About 30 minutes into The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the novel’s and film’s narrator, played by Tobey Maguire, attends one of Jay Gatsby’s infamous parties at his palatial estate on Long Island. Anyone who is anyone is not only there but, with the exception of Nick, uninvited. And who would know they are party crashers anyway since the enigmatic host himself never appears at his own parties?
As the soundtrack’s hip hop keeps pounding, Nick strikes up a conversation with a man whose face avoids the camera. We know who it is, but we go with it because the pay-off will probably be worth it. Nick starts naming all the crazy rumors circulating about Gatsby to this hidden man. And then, as the familiar strains of Rhapsody in Blue take over, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, surrounded by fireworks and holding a glass of champagne, turns to face Nick (and since we are privy to Nick’s point of view, he is also facing us, breaking the fourth wall) and nods in acknowledgment of his now-revealed identity. In concert with Luhrman’s use of lighting, camera placement, and narrative POV, this deliberate use of the Jazz Age anthem says as much about Leo’s big first entrance and star power as it does about the impact of Gatsby’s surprise appearance.
Rhapsody in Blue, a piece often associated with New York City, had its premiere at New York’s Aeolian Hall two years after the novel, The Great Gatsby, takes place. In 1931, George Gershwin described composing the piece on a train ride to Boston as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Luhrman successfully incorporates Rhapsody in Blue to explore the themes, moods, and characters of The Great Gatsby, although Gershwin’s purposes were apparently more universal, moving beyond the confines of New York and its upper crust.