Hope & Despair. Tragedy & Love. Romeo & Juliet.
It’s the quintessential story of young love. The tragic tale of two lovers separated by a schism beyond their control or concern. When Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is released later this year, it will be the latest interpretation of William Shakespeare’s famed play, Romeo and Juliet. The story’s title characters, paramours who belong to feuding bloodlines, are the go-to reference when referring to youthful romance.
Young love is often inherently tragic. Not to the grave extent of families at war and banishment, but it can feel as if it were. The rush of hormones is difficult to restrain as they exaggerate and amplify every feeling and emotion one can experience at that age. Director Baz Luhrmann captured that universal formative period with his film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Luhrmann’s adaptation looks, sounds, and moves like an adolescent summer. Not only is it Baz Luhrmann’s most Baz Luhrmann film, it’s his masterpiece. Though the auteur director’s style is divisive, the film’s success helped him break through to audiences and solidify the capable heartthrob status of its male lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. Romeo + Juliet did for a generation what the play and previous adaptations have done for ages: create a resonant work of relatable passion and longing.
Following the success of his first feature, Strictly Ballroom, Lurhmann set his sights on making a film he believed Shakespeare would make. “We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England – and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer and a user of incredible devices and theatrical tricks to ultimately create something of meaning and convey a story,” he explained in an interview.
The Australian auteur and his team went to great lengths to create a work that mixes Victorian language with modern visuals. With the actors speaking in centuries-old vernacular, Luhrmann understood the challenge. He needed to convey what’s happening in the scene using formalist filmmaking techniques to supplement the text. Luhrmann is the right interpreter for this translation as he relishes in enunciating with as much cinematic vocabulary as he can.
Luhrmann is a maximalist filmmaker. His colorful productions are replete with lush set and costume design. His heavy use of pop music, hyperactive camera movements, and breakneck edits were once indicative of the “MTV generation” style and are now employed by users on TikTok and directors such as Edgar Wright alike.
Like Wright and their contemporary Quentin Tarantino, Luhrmann uses genre cinema as shorthand. An early stand-off between the Capulets and Montagues takes place at a gas station (an updated stand-in for the horses’ watering hole) where Luhrmann uses the style of a Western to telegraph the families’ gun-slinging feud.
Though he frequently traffics in ferocious heterosexual love affairs, this is the tale best suited to his style. His follow-ups Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby both portray devastatingly romantic plots involving a man and woman. Both films are projected through the prism of his candy-aisle-in-a-baroque-theater aesthetic but neither coalesce to the level of Romeo + Juliet.
The tale of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan is another literary romance for the ages. The way Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor portray Satine and Christian in Moulin Rouge! places their affair high on the list of fictional sweethearts. The thing is Jay, Daisy, Satine, and Christian are all adults. It’s charming to see each respective couple exploring their passions in such an exaggerated and florid manner but there is a silliness to see grown men and women behaving like this. Though we suspend our disbelief because we enjoy seeing these pretty white people behaving like children because they’re in love, Romeo and Juliet are actually children. They’re at the appropriate age where the intensity of their relationship makes sense for what they are feeling and, in turn, how the audience experiences that.
Much of the success of that youthful element is thanks to the standout performances of its co-leads DiCaprio and Claire Danes, 21 and 16 years old respectively at the time. A year removed from My So-Called Life, Danes angelically embodied the adorable yet capricious teenage girl archetype. DiCaprio was already gracing the cover of Tiger Beat and showing his dramatic bona fides in films like The Basketball Diaries and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. His turn as Romeo might be DiCaprio at the peak of his twink-ness. His star was rising but it’s easy to forget that Romeo and Juliet are just one year away from Jack and Rose. Romeo + Juliet might have been a huge step in his mega-stardom but Titanic would be the Rubicon for DiCaprio.
Surrounding the star-crossed lovers is a who’s-who cast of nineties stalwarts. Praised for their performances are Pete Postlethwaite as Father Lawrence and Miriam Margolyes as Juliet’s nanny. The two patriarchs of houses Capulet and Montague, Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy, fit in nicely as identifiable and stately presences. An early role for Paul Rudd as Dave Paris offered a preview of his ageless good looks and charm as well as his comedic chops.
A product of its time, the principal cast is glaringly monochromatic with few exceptions. John Leguizamo, often an over-the-top presence, filled the role of the Jesus emblazoned bullet-proof vest wearing Tybalt with aplomb. The film features drag 13 years before America welcomed Ru Paul’s Drag Race into their homes. Harold Perrineau, who plays Mercutio, shines bright as Romeo’s best friend. When he and the other Montagues gather to crash the Capulet party, we see him in full drag. Even now, Perrineau’s energy and charisma are an undeniable treat. But one thing 25 years has changed is the perspective from which we view race parity in film.
Still, Romeo + Juliet caught lightning in a bottle. It resonated with the “heart on your sleeve” cohort that worked at the mall and spent their modest income at Warped Tour and Hot Topic. “It’s not so true that you could go to heaven at night / It’s not so true that you could go in the daylight / It’s not so true that everything will be all right,” sung The Promise Ring on their album 30° Everywhere, which was released the same year Leo dropped to his knees and shouted “I defy you stars” to the heavens. The Promise Ring was one of a lineup of second-wave emo bands who released records that year including Jimmy Eat World and Texas Is the Reason. It was a seminal year for the leaky-eyed & bleeding heart punk offshoot also exemplified by the release of Weezer’s Pinkerton. Lurhmann’s macabre romance featuring two family outcasts was a perfect companion piece for the melancholy music scene.
By all accounts, the film was a financial success. When it was released in November of 1996, the bold interpretation was embraced by many critics but some in the old guard viewed it with an arched eyebrow. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times found it vulgar. The New York Times’s film critic Janet Maslin asked “Where is the audience willing to watch a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train?”
Despite the mixed reviews from some of film’s most important critics, Luhrmann’s vision was embraced by the industry. DiCaprio won the Silver Bear for best actor and Luhrmann won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Catherine Martin and Brigitte Broch were nominated for best art direction/set direction at the Academy Awards. The film also won best direction, best adapted screenplay, best film music, and best production design at the BAFTA Film Awards.
In 2002, it was nominated to appear on the American Film Institute’s list of ‘100 Years… 100 Passions’. Three years later it was included on the British Film Institute’s list of ‘50 Films You Should Watch by the Age of 14’. It became a canonical entry point for young people to become interested in a stogy work from a de facto literary master. It also introduces young audiences to the idea of an auteur director, the way Tim Burton’s work did a decade earlier.
A quarter-century later, Romeo + Juliet still bursts with color and continues to be a frenetically paced watch. Its award-winning soundtrack is a stellar mixtape of nineties alt-pop. While the film is a crystalized ideal of Luhrmann’s oeuvre, it’s also a summit he has yet to surpass. The tale is timeless and Luhrmann so wonderfully portrays the age when liking someone, or someone liking you, felt like a matter of life and death. The film exists today as a gleaming souvenir of formative millennial earnestness: dewy, bloody, beautiful, and white.