Art Works Blog

And All That Jazz: Composing the Score for "The Great Gatsby"

Few books are more associated with jazz than The Great Gatsby, which so evocatively captures the extravagance of The Jazz Age—a term author F. Scott Fitzgerald himself coined. So when director Baz Luhrmann transferred the story to the silver screen in 2013, the music played as important a role as Jay Gatsby himself.

In typical Luhrmann fashion, the soundtrack is a mix of pop music and hip-hop, with pieces by The xx, Lana Del Rey, and Jay-Z, and jazz tunes by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, which focuses on the 1920s style. When it came to the orchestral score however, Luhrmann turned to longtime collaborator Craig Armstrong. Armstrong composed the score for Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), as well as for films such as The Quiet American (2002), Love Actually (2003), Ray (2004), and The Incredible Hulk (2008). Armstrong has also released six solo albums, composed extensively for theater, and wrote his first opera in 2012, based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. We recently spoke with the award-winning composer and musician from his home in Glasgow, Scotland, about his work on The Great Gatsby, and how the movie’s many musical elements wove together to capture the story’s flamboyant excesses and emotional tenderness.

NEA: The Great Gatsby has become the quintessential Jazz Age novel. How did jazz influence the score?

CRAIG ARMSTRONG: The harmonies in the score were quite jazz-inspired and had an improvisational feel. Working with Baz, we looked back to the music of the Jazz Age, and people like Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Paul Whiteman. I used a lot of that influence at the beginning. Doing a score like that, you start off from a very broad range of music, and then bit-by-bit you pare it down.

We got to the point when we had the main themes for Gatsby, the theme for Daisy, etc. A lot of those were used in the traditional jazz pieces done by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra—they took a lot of tunes from the score and did jazz arrangements of them. So the whole thing was quite tied in. One of the main Gatsby melodies, at the very start of the film—you have a jazz band playing that. Toward the very end of the film when Gatsby's at the dock of the bay with the green light, that theme is used orchestrally. So there's a lot of cross-fertilization between the very 20s-sounding music and the score. The jazz music was in a sense quite narrative and moved the action along and set the scene. The symphonic music was really dealing with the emotion of the characters, and with Gatsby's internal state.

NEA: Are you a jazz fan yourself?

ARMSTRONG: At the very beginning of my career, I went to the Royal Academy of Music in London when I was 17. They had a jazz course there, and I was part of that course. I was always a big jazz fan. I ended up being Young Jazz Musician of the Year. So the jazz part of things was in my blood. I admit, the jazz I would listen to more was like Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett. So the 20s music was something that I had to go back and study really. Going to college in the late 70s, there weren't a lot of people listening to early 20s jazz music. So one of the first things with Gatsby was listening to a lot of that early music and studying it.

NEA: How do you think the orchestral score complements the rest of the soundtrack, which is more hip-hop and pop-driven? 

ARMSTRONG: What Baz likes to do is fuse the popular songs and the score so there's a seamless transition. We started that in Romeo and Juliet, where there were elements of Radiohead that became part of the score. With Moulin Rouge, I did an arrangement of Nature Boy. Then the actual orchestral arrangement of [the Nature Boy song] was used as part of the score.

The same thing happened in Gatsby. I arranged the Lana Del Rey song and the xx, and then the orchestral arrangement would be used on its own in places. There was probably an hour of original score and probably an hour or 40 minutes of the songs.

NEA: Could you walk me through your creative process for Gatsby?

ARMSTRONG: Like any big movie, Baz wanted big themes. He's quite unusual as a director because he gets you down onto the set while it's being filmed so you can actually get the atmosphere. Baz would film during the day, and then at night we'd meet up and I would write music for rough scenes he'd done. I would say the Gatsby process was probably about two years long.

The first visit to Australia was being on the set and talking to Baz about what he wanted, and then I did a lot of work here in Glasgow at my studio. And then the next big period of work, which was over a few months, was in Sydney where we were going over concepts and what songs Baz wanted to use and how he wanted them to be part of the score. The final part was Baz came to Glasgow where we really focused very intricately on the score. Bit by bit, we would go over it with a fine-toothed comb. You can imagine as an example, if you take any of the scenes, there's probably about six versions of music for every single scene.

NEA: You’ve composed scores for many other films, some of which have been based on books and plays. How do you view the intersection between film, literature, and music?

ARMSTRONG: There are a lot of films based on novels and films based on plays and musicals. But I think with Baz Luhrmann, his choices are incredibly brave. Very few people would have tackled Romeo and Juliet. It's an iconic piece, and I would say the same for The Great Gatsby. I think most people would steer clear of those. They are so loved by everybody, and they're so analyzed. I'm sure at every university in America someone's doing a PhD on The Great Gatsby.

So in a way they're very brave choices, and by doing them, you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. Because when you choose such iconic works, by definition there are a lot of people you can't please. What you have to do is take a very singular, personal view of it and just do your version of The Great Gatsby, knowing that for a lot of people, it might be too modern and for some people it might not be modern enough. I think Baz is very good at is choosing an artistic path and just sticking to it.

As far as my take on The Great Gatsby, it's almost like poetry for me. There's so much in it. There are the parties, there's Gatsby's internal situation, there are Tom's love affairs, there's the visual essence of the 20s. But for me, I really focused the score on Gatsby's innocent longing for Daisy. In the book, you have the sentence "You can't repeat the past"—the score was focused on that emotion. For me that's really what the whole of The Great Gatsby is about. When you get rid of all the parties and all the ephemera, it's about someone holding onto a dream that's completely impossible. In one sense, you have that incredible admiration for Gatsby for being as innocent as that. He was a gangster, but his love for Daisy was really a very romantic love. Of course the flip side of that coin is it's completely doomed. A more normal reaction to Gatsby would be “Why are you doing this to yourself? You must know this can't work." But that innocence and pathos are there from the start of the film right to the end. I tried to do a thread in the score that led up to the point of Gatsby's death, that feeling of a very slow ticking clock from the start of the movie. But Gatsby had a lot of hope—I hope the music did as well.

NEA: You mentioned that when you're dealing with such an iconic work, you can't please everybody. Did you feel any particular pressure writing the score for such a well-known story? 

ARMSTRONG: You come to a work like that with great respect. But at the end of the day, you can't let that stifle you or make you nervous about working on it. That would be unproductive. So you just have to be brave and go with your own reaction to it, which is as important as any other reader reading it.

I'm a musician and I play piano as well. Say you're playing at the Royal Festival Hall or the Royal Albert Hall—you can waste a lot of energy thinking, “I'm about to go on and play at the Royal Albert Hall in front of thousands of people.” Or you can focus on “Let's play the piano as well as I can.” I'm not saying you're not going to be a bit nervous, but the balance of being petrified to the point of it affects your work is negative. You have to get the balance of respect and at the same time have the confidence to free yourself up to be an artist. With something like The Great Gatsby, it's a bit like playing a big concert hall. You can't let the occasion paralyze you. You have to work through that.



I admire composers for their incredible work; composing music is a talent and a gift.  I enjoyed learning about Armstrong's process and how he overcomes nerves when performing in front of people.  He's right, you can't think about how big the audience is, you just have to focus on what you're doing onstage.

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