When writing my Bachelor’s thesis in the spring of 2017, I embarked on an adventurous journey to re-experience the Roaring Twenties. I decided one of my aims would be to enjoy the process of writing it and invest my time in something I frankly like and am interested in. That is why I chose to combine three different areas: film, music and American history. And looking back today, I can sincerely say that, without any doubt, it was not a bad choice.
Imagine being able to travel in time. What an extraordinary experience it would be to visit Jazz-Age America. Impossible? In fact, I am convinced that there is a way to return to the glamorous and wild American Roaring Twenties. Here is how: sit back, relax and watch two recent Oscar-winning films: The Artist and The Great Gatsby. Both will provide an excellent 1920s experience.
The Artist, a silent, black-and-white motion picture, establishes a mood of nostalgia and emphasizes the elegance of the era. It depicts the story of two film stars – one on the way up and the other slowly fading away. The great thing about this story is the fact that by being silent, it truly stands out from most films today and therefore guarantees an extraordinary cinematic experience.
Music has the potential to allow you to re-live an era from the past, especially the 1920s Jazz Age. Since it may seem a little ironic to try to explain how music can have such power, the best way to find out would be simply to listen to it.
The only song in The Artist with lyrics is sung by Rose Murphy. It is an authentic song. Although composed in the second half of the 1930s, it is faithful to the mood of early jazz. This musical masterpiece proves that jazz evokes an atmosphere of ease through its playfulness and the feeling of lightheartedness. It lacks any sort of preoccupation with worry, scepticism or negativity. It doesn’t really bother with the pessimistic ideas of the era at all, although pessimism was a prominent general attitude in 1920s America. Still, jazz opposed this, or rather would not give in to the prevailing mind-set, which can be seen perfectly in the lyrics of the song, as well as the melody and the colour of it. There is not the slightest indication of worry or concern.
Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven? You’ll find your fortune fallin’ all over town Be sure that your umbrella [is] upside down If you want the ancient love? So, when it starts to thunder, don’t run under a tree There’ll be pennies from heaven [for] you and me [...] Trade them for a package of sunshine flowers if you want the ancient love So, when it starts to thunder, don’t run under a tree There’ll be pennies from heaven [for] you and me
It is about how wonderful one may feel when money is falling from the sky. Rose Murphy sings the beautifully naive tune with such carefreeness and delight in her voice. How ironic and evidential is the fact that the lyrics, melody and harmony go hand in hand to create the playful atmosphere of the Jazz Age. Murphy’s style is described as “playful, amiable”. Murphy’s pronunciation is so distinctive and indistinct that the author of the thesis assumes she replaces some of the original words of the song with her own. And these are the crucial terms when referring to the atmosphere the authentic jazz creates in The Artist. The lyrics are playful and imaginative in the true sense, yet they also literally complete the impression of the scene when Peppy achieves her dream of becoming famous and successful, and therefore rich (the song creates the impression of its being trivial, although it has not been easy for her to accomplish her goal), as if money were falling right into her hands. Apart from the lyrics, there is another, these days even less common feature of the jazz song, marked in the lyrics above with a star symbol. This is where Murphy scats. Scat singing is a special technique which occurs in jazz. According to an official definition, scat singing is a type of “singing in which the singer substitutes improvised nonsense syllables for the words of a song, and tries to sound and phrase like a musical instrument” (“scat singing”). Murphy’s singing was considered eccentric; it involved giggling, which would be controversial when classified. However, it is a lovely component of The Artist that is very different from contemporary music.
Hip-hop and rap are described as the authentic voice of an oppressed urban underclass and as a form that exploits long-standing stereotypes of black people. It is a style which is indeed based on principles ultimately derived from African musical and verbal traditions. Therefore, there is a clear connection between jazz and hip-hop, which are both used in The Great Gatsby. The film approaches a contemporary vision of America, addressing the fact that the descendants of the creators of jazz, who struggled greatly in America in previous eras, are now the ones collaborating on or even dominating a film set in precarious 1920s. It is a collaborative project in a true sense, bringing together major contemporary artists, regardless of their style or, more importantly, race. This means that The Great Gatsby ought to be viewed critically, as has already been mentioned. It is a story of multiple layers, concerning America’s past and present, as well as society now and then in general. It speaks not only to America but the 21st-century society, too. At the same time, it establishes an approach which will define the generation of the 2010s, once future generations examine us.
As Baz Luhrmann has said, we can only guess what Fitzgerald would have made of this film version of his novel; at the same time, we only imagine what the message of this recreation of the past will be once our descendants analyse us and this specific approach to the story. These lyrics of the party scene perfectly sum up the unwillingness of representatives of black culture in America to give up and be silenced. They have fought for their voice to be heard, just as women in the 20th century refused to live the way they were expected to. They wanted their voice to be heard and felt the need to be equal and recognized. And it is the same with those Americans whose ancestors laid the foundations of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz. The private party scene, where the African American trumpet player improvises, provides a non-diegetic sound, although the lyrics make the statement clear.
I can’t stop This is something like the Holocaust Millions of our people lost Bow our heads and pray to the Lord Black cards, black cars, black on black, black broads Whole lotta money in a black bag, black strap You know what that’s for? Who gon stop me, huh? I can’t stop
In The Artist, though the music is in the background, it somehow stands out to work perfectly and accompany the story in every detail. In the scene in which a couple tap-dance, they are perfectly synchronized, with the tempo of the music as well as each other. Also, when the character of the film director gets angry, the enthusiastic and optimistic tune turns into a minor one in an instant. That is because the music follows the emotions of the characters, developing in line with what the characters are experiencing.
The Great Gatsby has an atmosphere of there being various amusements to choose from, and that the young and ambitious youngsters have “joined the party” in preference to studying or worrying about other business. The slow-motion camera focuses on an item closely, breaking the story into little fragments and pointing these out in close-up – another element which aims to make the audience think. Also, the fast movement of the camera reflects the progress and speed of the decade – everything was changing, improving and flourishing.
Finally, I would strongly encourage anyone to watch both films to experience a little bit of the famous Roaring Twenties. Not only are they a wonderful source of entertainment, they also provide a peek into American history.