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Twenty years ago today, director Baz Luhrmann carved out his own niche when he added his name to the writers and directors who have taken on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
On November 1, 1996, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet hit theatres. It was a startling remake of a film that had and will continue to be recreated on the screen for years to come. Was it a modern telling or a traditional adaptation? Who were these two young leads? Could it work with Hawaiian shirts and Radiohead? It could and it did, cementing Luhrmann’s vision as one of it not the greatest Shakespeare retelling on film. Yup. We said it.
Twenty years later, the film still stands up with its all-consuming aesthetics, adventurous and emotional soundtrack and riveting performances just as powerful now as they were in 1996. Or even 1597 (approximately).
To celebrate the film’s twentieth anniversary, we’re breaking down the best parts of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
When it comes to casting one of the greatest love stories in literature, finding the perfect Romeo and Juliet is a tall task. In 1996, it would still be a year before Leonardo DiCaprio would set sail on the Titanic and twenty years before he would finally take home an Oscar. Claire Danes’ eventual cult classic My So-Called Life was then just a little-known show that had been unceremoniously cancelled after one season. But the two young actors, just 21 (DiCaprio) and 16 (Danes) when the movie was filmed, possessed an on-screen chemistry that was the perfect blend of understated and in your face depending on what the scene called for.
The incredible supporting cast, including Paul Rudd, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Jesse Bradford, Jamie Kennedy and Miriam Margolyes magnificently portrayed the stage production on film. Plus, the film gave us a clue that Rudd, the sensitive Josh from Clueless, should really be doing comedy.
While some of Shakespeare’s work is in the comedic genre, the play about the two teenagers who kill themselves in the name of love is not one of them. Still, director Baz Luhrmann was able to inject some much-needed moments of comedic reprieve into his film, allowing his actors to use physical comedy and change the cadence of the dialogue to elicit some necessary lighter moments.
Aside from a few shots in Miami, the majority of Romeo and Juliet was filmed in Mexico City, with the area’s religious influence and warm colour scheme lending to the distinct look of the film. Although the original dialogue from Shakespeare’s play is used, some characters are renamed or assigned to a different family. The Montagues and Capulets are mafia families at war, with their respective gas stations acting as battlegrounds and their mansions the backdrop for an elaborate party scene. Mexico City’s beach becomes the location for Mercutio’s death, while the city centre provides a dramatic setting for Tibalt’s murder.
There are few filmmakers who have been able to craft a signature look quite like Baz Luhrmann. The Australian director has used Paris for Moulin Rogue!, Mexico City for Romeo + Juliet, Sydney for The Great Gatsby, and New York City for The Get Down. While all projects have their own distinct feel and look, Luhrmann’s trademark frenzied shots and vivid colours help his stories jump off the screen. That was definitely the case in Romeo + Juliet, with the Mexico City heat radiating throughout the film.
Luhrmann’s cinematic calling card is not complete without an inventive and exhilarating soundtrack. Original tracks from Garbage, Everclear, Butthole Surfers, Des’ree and Radiohead, as well as instrumental arrangements from Nellee Hooper helped the soundtrack reach number two on the Billboard Chart.
That Shakespeare guy really knew his way around a quill. For every successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, there are just as many remakes that fall flat. The convergence of Shakespeare’s original work with modern yet still fantastical setting created a film that honoured the original, and completely owned the story at the same time. Although Pete Postlethwaite is the only actor that sticks to Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter in the film, the original dialogue’s modern interjections help it feel like a visual Coles Notes.
What are Hamlet’s last words? I can’t quite remember, but just try watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet without having Harold Perrineau’s delivery of “a plague on both your houses” seared into your memory. It’s impossible. Take that, Grade 12 English exam.