Hope for the Best? Utopianism in The Great Gatsby

On the most basic level, people consume entertainment purely for the sake of amusement.[1] There is no pretense, only an honest desire for pleasure. One popular conception of entertainment is that it serves as a form of transportation away from the monotonies of daily existence.[2] All of its forms, especially the vivid imagery of musicals and movies, can make your wildest dreams come true. Each offers the chance to imagine an alternate utopian universe where everything and everyone is better. The elements of music and dance are essential in constructing that imagination, as they indicate to us through their performance and cultural context how we should feel.[3] The most powerful movies incorporate those elements into the fabric of the production.

The award-winning Australian director and producer Baz Luhrmann excels in blending elements of theater and film to create an especially utopian brand of popular culture. Luhrmann is a progeny of the culture industry: his father was a movie theater owner and his mother was a ballroom dance teacher, and his own career began in theater.[4] The first movie he directed was Strictly Ballroom, which was first a critically acclaimed play.[5] He has directed and produced several other films, including Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.[6] These three pieces make up a collection known as the Red Curtain Trilogy, so named because each movie incorporates theatrical motifs.[7] Luhrmann’s rich theater background enabled him to fashion a unique direction and production style.

Luhrmann’s most recent opus, the 2013 film remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular novel The Great Gatsby, deviates from the typical Hollywood blockbuster in its strong emphasis on song and dance. He reconceives the story of enigmatic mogul Jay Gatsby much like a Hollywood musical, with frequent scenes of lively dancing and revelry that fuel the plot development. Luhrmann’s theatric background explains why this nonstandard blockbuster film resembles a musical. Richard Dyer, Professor of Film Studies at King’s College in London, believes that such Hollywood musicals present to their viewers how their own lives could be “something better.”[8] The integration of music and dance into the storyline makes viewers wish that their own lives were equally exciting and fulfilling.

The character Jay Gatsby himself epitomizes what it means to yearn for “something better.” The young tycoon, born the son of “dirt-poor farmers from North Dakota,” was able to quickly ascend the ranks of society through his ambition and shrewd intellect.[9] The level of wealth and fame that he attains seems to signify the fulfillment of the quintessential “American Dream.” Gatsby seems to have it all, yet he is not satisfied. A simple green light that shines from a dock across the bay captivates him; it symbolizes all the things for which Gatsby yearns. From his home across the water, Gatsby often watches it with great intensity, and even reaches for it. Yet he can never quite grasp it: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… – so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”[10] Gatsby’s past shortcomings and failures haunt him, yet he continues to believe that he can right them. This attitude of persistency and hopefulness is what endears viewers to Gatsby despite his many flaws. Baz Luhrmann encourages us to wish in the same way he does, and the entire audience shares Gatsby’s longing for the unobtainable.

Luhrmann manages to infuse some elements of hope into an otherwise deflated plotline; he understands that the audience, too, needs hope. The time period in which the movie takes place is the height of “Roaring ‘20s,” a time of great prosperity during which stock prices reached record highs.[11] Luhrmann is very ostentatious in his depictions of this great wealth. He spares no expense in representing Gatsby’s summer parties, creating sensational spectacles of colorful and cacophonic chaos. These dance scenes closely resemble theatrical numbers in their choreography, sweeping the film’s audience onto the dance floor and giving them a chance to experience how such a party looks and sounds. During these raucous moments, Luhrmann wants viewers to consider what their own lives would be like on such a grand scale. The music that accompanies both these wild scenes and the tamer moments of narration dictates to the individuals watching the movie what they should be feeling. As philosopher Suzanna K. Langer describes it, “Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life.”[12] People are conditioned to attach certain emotions to the moods of the music they hear; musical tones are similar in structure to human feelings.[13] Luhrmann capitalizes on this capability. He excites his audience with raucous party anthems, allowing his audience to discover what a utopia feels like; he makes them want it.

Musicals and their film counterparts offer utopian solutions to contemporary problems: abundance eliminates scarcity, energy eradicates exhaustion, and intensity replaces monotony.[14] During these truly extraordinary parties, there is only excess, effervescent liveliness, and passion. These solutions are, Dyer says, ones that capitalism provides: “abundance becomes consumerism, energy and intensity personal freedom and individualism.”[15] In essence, these cinematic musicals suggest that capitalism can resolve its own problems. But there some issues that the musical film simply does not address.

The Great Gatsby celebrates capitalism, even as it conveniently ignores the legitimacy of class, patriarchal, and race struggles. This film offers a glimpse of a “better” world, but it is world that is only better for the wealthy white male. It completely ignores the needs of any characters who do not conform to that definition, even if those needs are indeed legitimate. Tom Buchanan, the incredibly wealthy husband of Gatsby’s true love Daisy, bluntly captures the stark class divide of the film when he tells Gatsby that he and other “old-money” socialites “were born different, it’s in our blood.”[16] Despite his newly acquired affluence and renown, Gatsby can never attain the same status as Tom and Daisy because his family was poor.

Gatsby’s mansion on West Egg, the home of “new money” families.

This disregard for the needs of marginalized groups within contemporary society is not simply an isolated case of a single movie. Dyer argues that entertainment, although it “is responding to needs that are real, at the same time it is also defining and delimiting what constitutes the legitimate needs of people in this society.”[17] In choosing to respond to certain issues and not others, the creators of that entertainment (i.e. big film corporations) have the power to determine what issues merit attention and discussion, and what issues do not. The dominant ideology within today’s capitalist society is the rich white man; why expect the pop culture industry to be any different?[18]

Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s estate on East Egg, where the “old money” socialites live.

At this point we have come to the conclusion that The Great Gatsby and other such musically oriented movies do in fact present utopias, albeit seemingly discriminatory ones. But if these alternative worlds seem bigoted, are they really any better than the real world? Fredric Jameson, Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University, argues in his article “Progress Versus Utopia” that a society founded upon capitalism “demands a memory of qualitative social change, a concrete vision of the past which we may expect to find completed by that far more abstract and empty conception of some future terminus which we sometimes call ‘progress.’”[19] Jameson draws a connection between the utopian desire for “something better,” in the form of social change, with the idea of progress.

If utopias and progress are indeed intimately intertwined, the alternative universes presented in musicals need not be utopias at all (although they certainly can be). Though the societies depicted in cinematic musicals might be discriminatory, that does not mean the movies have no utopias to offer. We as viewers can identify the wrongs present in the films, and imagine how both that world as well as our own could be better. A production’s primary task, then, is able to make problems of class, patriarchy, and race just as apparent through its song and its dance as the problems of scarcity, monotony, and exhaustion. That I was able to imagine how the worlds of The Great Gatsby and other musical films could be massively better means that they served their purpose.


Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” In Only Entertainment, Second Edition, 19-35. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.

“Baz Luhrmann Biography.” Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/baz-luhrmann-21032459.

The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. 2013. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia.” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 149.

[1] Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Only Entertainment, Second Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 19.

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 27.

[4] “Baz Luhrmann Biography,” Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/baz-luhrmann-21032459.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Baz Luhrmann Biography,” Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/baz-luhrmann-21032459.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 20.

[9] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[10] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 27.

[13] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 22.

[14] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 24-25.

[15] Ibid, 26.

[16] The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013; Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2013), DVD.

[17] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 25.

[18] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” 25.

[19] Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia,” Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 149.