In 1996, Baz Luhrmann introduced to us a modernized adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy. Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, retells the story of two families in Verona Beach, Florida, deep-rooted in competition and rivalry. Not only is the location modified (the original story is set in northern Italy), it is set in modern day with modern character types and situations. Luhrmann chose for the entire film’s dialogue to be original Shakespeare lines, which shocks in combination with this visually current Hollywood production. Additionally, the soundtrack that scatters modern songs alongside a traditional story acts as a noticeable vehicle for cross-generational fusion. These uncommon combinations are what make Luhrmann’s adaption unique and popular; the film grossed ten times its budget, and the popular music soundtrack saw great success in North America and Australia.
The film opens at a gas station, where a group of young Montagues encounter a group of young Capulets. A brawl ensues and the style is immediately distinguished as fast-cut, quick-edit “MTV-style” production work. People draw their guns, humorously and creatively chosen to be manufactured by the brand “Sword.” The plot proceeds as it finds way to adapt the words of Shakespeare’s time to 1990s Florida. Instead of politics, each family heads one of the two most powerful business empires in the city.
Romeo + Juliet is scored with orchestral and choral compositions, which serve well to heighten the intensity of scenes involving brawls, death and unjust tragedy. However it’s the addition of a contemporary selection of songs that bring the movie up a par alongside its other modern components. Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” is introduced as the first contributing track in the film, placed seductively over DiCaprio’s first scene on a Verona beach at sunrise. Luhrmann is clearly a visionary, as the mood feels powerful and illustrious as each scene changes. Romeo first meets Juliet (Danes) while on ecstasy at her family’s Halloween party. “Kissing You” by Des’ree bellows as they lock eyes though a fishtank, ensuring that their long-awaited love has arrived. This song reappears when they make love for the first and only time. Quindon Tarvor plays a young choral singer who sings “When Doves Cry” as well as “Everybody’s Free” during their wedding ceremony, both of which paint the audible scenes with a prominent and pop-savvy beauty. Suitably so the film closes on Radiohead’s melancholy narration, composed especially for the film, entitled “Exit Music (For a Film).”
Then there are 90s teen movie additives: “You and Me Song” by The Wannadies and “Lovefool” by The Cardigans. Various discohouse music plays outside a neon-lit theme park before Mercutio’s drag queen entrance to the Halloween party, and Garbage’s “#1 Crush” pulls high school memory strings as the first track on Romeo + Juliet’s soundtrack.
The emotional weight of these musical choices seems to successfully transcend the age-old story onto a generation of Millennials. Would we—the “pride ourselves on living as realists” we—be so keen to absorb a contemporary story of love and marriage at first sight, had these extremely personal and moving tracks not been inserted in place of a traditional score? Maybe the current and partly punk soundtrack added further to reason this film as the standout commercial success among most Shakespeare adaptations of the late 20th century. Luhrmann might have created an irritably (to some) pop-art rendition of Shakespeare, but he successfully re-popularized a classic, which can never be given too much credit.