If Shakespeare's romantic tragedy were tossed in a blender with a colorful comic strip and a modern pop album, out would pour William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) crafts this bold, bright adaptation with a unique vision clearly in his crosshairs, a signature of sorts for his stage-minded aesthetic. Where the film succeeds, instead of sinking into the melting pot of pop culture's cliché romances, is within all the non-conventional choices made as it propels the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Dance in the roles of the star-crossed lovers. Though excessive as Luhrmann takes risks in pushing the barriers of tactful style, this telling of "Romeo and Juliet" still becomes an enthralling, adrenaline-injected modernization on the old standard.
Shakespeare's romantic tragedy approaches common-knowledge territory for most people at a young age, but this spruced-up take on the story will still grab one's lulled attention. From the introductory iambic pentameter, voiced over a television news broadcast, it's clear that the fate of two young lovers would end a generations-long feud between warring families in a more up-to-date setting. The houses of Montague and Capulet wage a political and physical battle on the streets of Verona Beach, approaching full-blown war as they widening the distance between the two families. But one Montague, teenager Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), instead indulges in the Bohemian woo of women and infatuation, and will soon find a match in an unlikely circumstance.
One night, as the Montagues infiltrate a lavish Capulet costume ball for kicks-'n-giggles in the film's grandest orchestration of color and bombast, Romeo finds himself eye to eye with the beautiful, young Juliet (Claire Danes), a Capulet currently being wooed by wealthy suitor Paris (Paul Rudd). Though knowing that a Montague-Capulet relationship would never succeed in the crossfire of their family's war, the two still defy their squabbling houses and surrender to their passionate hearts, leading into some of literature's most vivid and endearingly romantic sequences. Baz Luhrmann, as will become obvious, excels in the art of creating scenes where characters fall in love at first sight, coming together here in a tender meet-cute involving two bashful teenagers peering through a neon fish tank with Des'ree's popular song "Kissing You" as a musical backdrop. Though it sounds overtly saccharine on paper, it's surprisingly affective.
Later praised for his skills of boisterous and beautiful composition with Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann crafts this reexamination of Romeo + Juliet with the idea of an "urban renaissance" as his primary thrust. Sword and daggers become pistols, flower shirts and gun holsters replace tunics and other period attire, while chariots and horses take on the form of gaudy, souped-up automobiles. More importantly, fair Verona is transplanted to a urban seaside location packed with seductive, dangerous beauty, featuring dusty pool halls and women (?) dancing in sequined dresses next to cruising strips. The Mexican-shot locations radiate with a distinctive Miami vibe, scattering scantly-clad people across sandy hangout spots with the Montague and Capulet "towers" in the offset.
Luhrmann paints Romeo + Juliet with a vivacious palette in this setting, achieving an peculiar-yet-alluring visual presence that dances across the barriers of convention just enough to work. He attempts to reinvigorate the original Shakeapearean dramatic attitude by packing in modern music and brash artistic design amid the bard's scorching, labyrinthine dialect, attempting to craft something similar to what he might envision for the modern era. Cross-dressing, pill-popping, and shot-guzzling all transpose against Donald M. McAlpine's lavish cinematography, coming together in a combination of candy-coated grace and quickly-edited chaos. To say that Luhrmann's vision deviates from the elegiac, prim-'n-proper depictions of both the stage and screen is an understatement, and it certainly isn't for all audiences.
It's in the creative decision to adhere to Shakespeare's language word-for-word (at least portions of it) that Luhrmann's vision becomes divisive, as the flourish of elegant dialogue collides with the hyper-stylized film-making to mixed, albeit chaotically alluring success. When the visual flare, quick editing, and devoutly-Renaissance language converge with pop music powering the background, the artistic anarchy becomes tough to manage, oftentimes flying off the rails. Jamie Kennedy's overtly-obnoxious, pink-haired persona as Romeo's cousin Sampson becomes little more than an infuriating cartoon as he inanely bites his thumb, while Harold Perrineau's razzle-dazzle dance number as Mercutio in drag feels strangely out of place when book-ended by the character's Queen Mab speech and the lovers' first meeting -- even if you can't help but grin at the lavish silliness as a drug-induced frenzy. And it'd probably serve the audience best to take the pompous animation of Paul Sorvino and Diana Venora as Juliet's parents with a grain of salt.
Romeo + Juliet works best when it tempers enthusiastic creativity with reverence to the play, allowing flickers of style to mingle with Shakespeare's design instead of driving it. This directly affects most of Romeo and Juliet's large sequences together, from their poolside conversation at the Capulet manor to their morning-after banter while in bed. But there are other unique successes outside of their scenes; Pete Postlethwaite delivery of the Father Laurence character convinces with high-brow, emblazoned theatricality as he sports tattoos and shoots tequila, while the entirety of the beach-bound rumble between Mercutio (sans sequins and make-up) and Tybalt ensnares the impact of scene with a fine amount of dramatic weight. As a clear admirer of the source, Luhrmann realizes what scenes and characters are integral and which ones he can use for experimentation, which make for genuinely touching scenes surrounded by the director's bombast.
Naturally, the potency behind a faithful adaptation to "Romeo and Juliet" boils down to the casting of its two leads and how they deliver the powerhouse beats in Shakespeare's play, and thankfully Luhrmann cast two fine stars in Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Both come off of measured successes, DiCaprio from the intense but overwrought The Basketball Diaries and Danes from the excellent My So Called Life, with fresh faces and stirring talents that hit a higher octave than either had experienced previously. Their chemistry during the balcony scene leans towards that "tempered reverence" that I mentioned, showcasing their budding talent with a handful of other tender, affectionate moments afterward that sell their innocent love. It's enough to carry our empathy all the way to Luhrmann's orchestration of the play's climax, which goes off with the right type of colorful, bold fireworks that hallmark Romeo + Juliet up to this point.
This Music Edition of Romeo + Juliet is packaged in a standard single-disc DVD keepcase with mediocre coverart underneath a very classy slipcover. As a whole package, this DVD looks quite nice. However, without the slipcover that forms a frame around the two leads, the coverart is indeed lacking. Interestingly, the menu designs are nearly identical in layout to the previous Special Edition.
Note: Though labeled the Music Edition, this disc contains a full, unaltered transfer of the film in its theatrical state. The extra material is where this Music Edition earns its name.
Romeo + Juliet: Music Edition is presented in its original widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Is the third time the charm for this presentation? To a very mild degree, it does succeed. Seemingly a smidge richer with color and detail compared to the Special Edition, Romeo + Juliet appears quite inviting. Such a richly designed film, which won several production design awards, including a nomination for the Art Direction-Set Direction category at the Academy Awards, deserves a stellar presentation. Though still a shade on the blurry side during specific scenes and not without sporatic blips in the print, Romeo + Juliet looks pretty darn good. Colors are rich, vibrant, and very silky to the eyes. Edge enhancement and digital artifacts seemed pretty minimal. Though it still has quite a few of the imperfections from the previous release, this presentation does the job quite well.
Here's where the Music Edition shifts into dangerous territory. Romeo + Juliet is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes. Though the original Special Edition isn't lacking punch regarding audio, the score and dialogue is undoubtedly richer with this new DTS track. Fireworks cracked with a louder punch, the modern music flowed and thumped with grace, and Luhrmann's closely-adhered Shakespearean dialogue popped in the ears with wonderful crispness. Compared during Mercutio's introductory scene, his initial performance on the stairs at the Capulet party, and the famed balcony scene especially, this DTS track is quite vibrant. Language tracks are available in French and Spanish Dolby Surround tracks, and subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Where the Music Edition goes right in video/audio performances, it also makes some significant sacrifices in bonus material over the Special Edition. Here's what is cut from the SE disc:
- Group Commentary
- Director's Gallery
- Cinematography Gallery
- Design Gallery
- Interview Gallery
- Music Clips
- Marketing R + J
Included in that plethora of bonus material is some fantastically candid material from the participants. The design, cinematography, and director's galleries all include high-quality portions of interest. Plus, the marketing section includes one-sheet posters, trailers, and more.
Now, for this Music Edition, several extras geared directly towards the musical presentation of the film are included:
A series of film Commentaries are included to replace the group commentary. Included are commentaries from director Baz Luhrmann himself, as well as composers Craig Armstrong and Marius De Vries. This great Luhrmann commentary, though he keep stating is a commentary for the "music disc", dabbles into other choice items here and there non-music related. Baz Luhrmann is a lot of fun to listen to, and this commentary works very well in conveying his appeal.
Romeo + Juliet: The Music is a fairly long documentary regarding the design of the music for the film. Interesting to note is the process in which this film, set at a very low budget, must adhere. With a range of very talented producers (one of which remained not included in the documentary) accompanied by Luhrmann's quaint talent of explaining aesthetic elements quite well, this process is explicated in rich depth.
A Music Machine feature simulates a juke-box where specific song titles are selected. Once chosen, the DVD skips directly to the portion of the film where the song is, plays the song, and returns to the jukebox. Interesting design, but rather unexciting in content.
The London Music Mix is a shorter featurette featuring some of the aforementioned producers talking about their painstaking, sleep-deprived strife in assembling the aural setup.
Finally, three brief but interesting featurettes entitled Journey of the Song show how the music is further integrated and cinematically assembled. These pieces are especially great since they include rehearsal footage from all the players, especially the falsetto boy who sings "Everybody's Free" in the church during the film.
While these musical special features are decently entertaining and worth the time, the previous Special Edition DVD is much more comprehensive in regards to the film as a whole.
Loud, blisteringly bright, and fueled with adrenaline, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet maintains a sharp level of entertainment from start to finish. Undoubtedly not a classic re-telling of the bard's tragic love story, director Luhrmann's creation attempts to envelope viewers in a dizzying spectacle of color and violence amongst a divine tale of forbidden love. Adhering to the original dialect from Shakespeare himself creates a fantastic contrast with these modernized elements. Those looking for a simple, purely classical telling of Romeo and Juliet might want to venture towards the older version of the film from the late '60s. Dismissing this work from the creator of Moulin Rouge, however, would result in diversion from an amusingly affectionate tragedy through a kaleidoscope of superbly crafted visuals.
Though this film comes heavily recommended, here's the ultimate question: Is this Romeo + Juliet: Music Edition a difinitive upgrade, a companion, or not worth the time? This edition is a great companion disc to the Special Edition. The inclusion of a DTS track, the marginally improved transfer, and the additional commentaries and content merits this disc an approval rating for fans of the film. The ideal situation would be a multi-disc set including all the extras from the Special Edition as well as everything packed in this disc. For these reasons, this Music Edition comes Recommended at a great budget price. Paired with the Special Edition that can be found for relatively inexpensive, these two discs will cover a comprehensive basis for fans of the film.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site