The harsh truth that the decade of the 1990s is twenty-years in the past is enough to make me feel sufficiently old. Probably the same holds true for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes who, in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, were youngsters themselves – fresh-faced from The Basketball Diaries and My So Called Life. Feeling age creeping in aside, I’m excited for the revival of the great films for the younger generation in the 1990s. Some deserve it more than others, Romeo and Juliet is the ultimate and timeless “young love” film that definitely needs a re-visit or, if you’re currently young, a first visit of many.
I went to see Romeo and Juliet with my college roommate back in the day when I thought little Leo was cute. It was certainly not the first movie I had ever seen, but it was one of the first that became a purposeful endeavor, etched into both our minds as the vivid dreamscape and weird world unfolded before us.
The re-working of the Shakespearean narrative was at once extremely of the moment, one of the past, and one of the future. The incorporation of music and singing was not at all out of place, a reflection of the vibrant rave movement that was just on the wane. Complete with drag queens. The soundtrack included such greats as Radiohead, Garbage, and the Butthole Surfers. I bought it and listed to it for years. And in Luhrmann’s hyper-real aesthetic were the bright, saturated colors that exist no where else but in fair Verona. The flash of guns (functioning as “swords”) engraved with “Capulet” and “Montague” told us all the backstory we needed to know (as if we didn’t already) and hinted of the extreme violence and tragedy ahead.
I would imagine that intending to make Shakespeare modern must have been a tough sell in the Hollywood pitch room. Still, Luhrmann achieved this. He moved it away from the encrypted language into one that, though not surface material by any means, become accessible and heightened at the same time. Like the 15th century story itself, this particular filmic version of Romeo and Juliet is about opposites – past and present colliding together, possibilities for failure and for death. Fortunately for us, the film comes out alright in the end; still does today. Dear Romeo and Juliet meet the same fate as always though, despite our young yearning for them to say “fuck it”, rise from the alter, and head out to take on the world.
Alas, parting is such sweet sorrow.