Various Artists, "Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film 'The Great Gatsby'" (Universal) -- It is not, thank gawd, one of those retro-hipster jazz projects that comes along whenever pop music gets too boring (see Joe Jackson's "Jumpin' Jive" or the Squirrel Nut Zippers). It is merely another anachronistic hootenanny by Baz Luhrmann, mashing up modern music with his latest overstylized antique visuals in an adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." How all this will mesh with the movie remains to be seen -- Luhrmann's track record as a jukebox filmmaker is sketchy, though that "Roxanne" tango in "Moulin Rouge" was pretty great -- but at least the album itself is not overstylized. Like, at all.
As with any soundtrack, this one's hit-or-miss. The hits, though, are pretty stunning.
With nods to the roaring '20s without attempts at replicating them (except for the Bryan Ferry Orchestra's tracks, including a dynamic ragtime reading of Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" sung by the superb Emeli Sandé), most performances are restrained and pull at the various taut threads of Gatsby's unraveling. Beyoncé, approaching an overexposure now at the level of some of Luhrmann's frames, surprises by downshifting into indie-chanteuse mode, delivering her half of a duet with André 3000, a cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," with a sad sexual tension that approaches torch song but never ignites it. Sadness and torchiness infuse Lana Del Rey's effortless and sweeping "Young and Beautiful" and Sia's very Adele-like "Kill and Run," both ballads saturated with strings but still sturdy. The xx seem out of place on paper here, but the band's "Together" evokes the narrative's palpable desperation in its hushed tone and nagging heart-monitor beat.
Like the story, the women hold the power here. Producer Jay-Z opens the set with "$100 Bill," a hum-drum rumination on (surprise) money and power; will.i.am's "Bang Bang" is a dud dud; Jack White's U2 cover ("Love Is Blindness"), the set's only previously released track, is still a bit histrionic. In the end, this set won't have many swooning like, say, Vladimir Tostoff's "Jazz History of the World," but at least it's not as cynical.