Baz Luhrmann has lifted the curtain on his musical process, recalling one key artist who could have changed his 2013 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” entirely.
The filmmaker, who recently wrote, produced and directed the glittering musical biopic “Elvis,” starring Austin Butler, opened up about his long-standing love affair with pop music at BAFTA’s Life In Pictures event in London on Friday.
The evening welcomed Luhrmann back to London following his worldwide box office success with “Elvis”, which both honors the rock’n’roll musician’s back catalogue and offers contemporary reworking of songs of the era, such as Doja Cat’s new track “Vegas,” which samples and reworks the 1953 blues song “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton.
Luhrmann described pop music as a “translation” for the story across all of his films, pointing specifically to “The Great Gatsby” in order to highlight how he worked with Jay-Z (who was an executive producer on the film score) to evoke the meaning of jazz for a modern era by reworking many classic sounds into hip-hop. “I don’t put groovy soundtracks on my films because it’s nice to have a hit record,” the filmmaker said. “I do it as a translation act.”
But he also revealed, while showing the audience at BAFTA HQ a key scene from the film, that Prince had written a song for the movie that didn’t ultimately work. Lana Del Rey’s contribution “Young And Beautiful” ended up taking its place.
The scene in question sees Del Rey’s track reworked by a classical orchestra conducted by Bryan Ferry, and the song returns throughout the film as a romantic motif for Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan’s characters, lovers Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.
“Prince had worked on a song for six months, and then suddenly decided to write a new one and it wasn’t right,” Luhrmann revealed. The filmmaker said he and Prince — who died in 2016 — had already worked together twice, before he then called Del Rey to find an alternative track.
Elsewhere in the conversation with Briony Hanson, Director of Film at the British Council, Luhrmann opened up about his methodology when it comes to musical cues, revealing that “Elvis” doesn’t actually feature many of the filmmaker’s favorite Elvis Presley songs.
“I think personal taste is the enemy of art,” Luhrmann began, when asked how he went about choosing which hits to feature in the film. “What I mean by that is that despite what people might think, my choices are not personal taste. My mission was to take someone who was the poster boy of American pop culture, and to use Elvis as a canvas to explore a larger idea.”
He added of the final soundtrack: “Musically, it’s not my favourite Elvis pieces, it’s about what pieces of music dramatically move the story forward. ‘Kentucky Rain’ is an amazing song, but we just didn’t have a scene that was in the cold Kentucky rain.”
Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May and subsequently opening in cinemas worldwide this summer, “Elvis” has become Luhrmann’s highest-grossing film in the U.S. and across 21 international territories. It currently ranks as the second-highest grossing musical biopic of all time globally, just behind 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Most recently, Luhrmann finished production on “Faraway Downs,” a six-part Hulu series expanding the world of his own 2008 feature film “Australia” which also brings new music to the fore. The filmmaker explained he had “shot so much” for the original film that he shared previously unseen footage and worked with Indigenous musicians and artists to create new music within the story. Luhrmann said there is “quite a bit of plot difference” in the narrative, which he likens to “Erik Satie doing variations on Claude Debussy.” He added: “It’s not just a director’s cut. It’s a wholly different world, drawn from the same well.”
20th Television confirmed the arrival of “Faraway Downs” in June 2022, but a release date is yet to be set. The series will premiere on Hulu in the U.S. and on Star overseas.