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.
Video and Audio:
Put simply, wow. What a difference.
Romeo + Juliet arrives from Fox in a 2.4:1 1080p AVC encode that presents the film's cinematography in an astounding step-up from previous DVD iterations, appearing with a much more controlled palette and level of detail than it ever has before. Approved by Baz Luhrmann himself, this Blu-ray has regained control of a large amount of issues from previous visualizations, dropping the pinkish tint along with several other overblown colors and losing any instance of debris or blips in the print. Every single facet has been reinvigorated with this new scan, from the sheen in Leo's armor and the textures in several close-ups to the assorted blasts of reds in drapery and neon blues in the fish. The shattering of fireworks before the Capulet shindig and the individual sequins in dresses firmly stand in-tact and ravishingly details, contrast balances out details in darker scenes -- especially the funeral -- to a much thicker and appropriate degree, and the intricate density of Luhrmann's set design never leaves a nook, cranny, texture, or element out of place or non-visible. If there's anything to critique, it's a one or two instances of smooth skin textures, a handful of ever-so-slightly hazy sequences, and some grain that crosses the line from natural film texture to erratic compression. But otherwise, man ... Romeo + Juliet simply looks stunning.
And it sounds great, too. Romeo + Juliet's has seen its share of audio upgrades over several home video offerings, from the Special Edition's standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track to the Music Edition's boost to a DTS stream. Now, the film arrives with a DTS HD Master Audio presentation that sounds relatively similar in regards to separation and punch, but the level of clarity stands quite a few notches above its previous renderings. The big scenes to test are the explosive fireworks and dialogue during and after the Queen Mab speech, the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, and the racket thereafter -- essentially the entirety of the party sequence. Fireworks explode with greater punch and heightened levels of shimmering clarity, while the slight sound effects of shoes tapping, Leo's face mask slapping the water, and the shift in echo during Sade's song all experience a ravishing boost in crispness. Dialogue, at other times in the film, does show the limits of the film's age and budget, seeming a bit muffled but never anywhere close to inaudible, while surround activity flushes the rear speakers with music and ambient effect throughout. Yeah, there's a difference here too, coming together into an audiovisual upgrade that almost makes a mockery of the decent DVDs.
One of the big plunders in owning Romeo + Juliet came in the fact that different discs embodied different extras: the Special Edition having more film-centric features, while the Music Edition has, well, more music-centric features. This Romeo + Juliet Blu-ray doesn't compile all of the special features from the previous discs, but it comes damn close. Everything it includes feels definitive and encompassing enough to satisfy every curiosity, at least to this reviewer, to needn't worry about keeping the rest of the discs.
Visual (Optional) Group Commentary:
If the names listed for this track -- Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Craig Pierce, and Donald McAlpine -- look familiar to owners of the older Special Edition DVD, they should; this track's actually the exact same commentary, one that didn't make it to the Music Edition. It's a vibrant and insightful group commentary that reveals a lot about the production aspects of the film, as one could expect from the talkative, intricate focus from Luhrmann on his craft. They discuss the Capulet party scene in depth, the choice for specific characters to carry gun instead of the en-masse populace in the film, the church used in the film, and many other topics. The commentary can be watched both by the track alone and with visual accompaniment, a small window that shows behind-the-scenes shots and rehearsals. It must be viewed with the commentary, however, as manually trying to flip on the DTS HD Master Audio track turned it off.
From the Bazmark Vault:
This feature mostly contains raw promo and rehearsal footage for Romeo + Juliet. Each item is, unfortunately, massively windowboxed in a frilly frame. First Kiss (2:20) captures some test footage featuring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes presumably nude underneath a blanket, Beach Scene (4:17) shows behind-the-scenes footage of Luhrmann on-set during the Mercutio-Tybalt brawl, Uncut Rehearsal (4:40) showcases a reading for Paul Sorvino and Miriam Margolyes' volatile scene in the Capulet mansion, and Outside the Church (2:40) reveals some very rough videotape footage before Romeo and Tybalt's confrontation.
Romeo + Juliet: The Music (49:13, HD AVC; From Music Edition):
This is a fairly long documentary regarding the design of the film's music, as well as how they decided to greenlight the picture based off of the utilization of popular music. Budget for the film becomes a big topic, reflecting on how 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 explained in rich depth. Composer Craig Armstrong, Robert Kraft and other music-based individuals behind the film dominate the runtime, reflecting on the vibe and construction of its aural properties to very in-depth degrees.
Also carried over from the Music Edition are the Journey of the Song (1:46, 2:06; HD AVC) series of brief featurettes for "Everybody's Free" and the temp music, as well as the London Music Mix (4:20, HD AVC) bit about recording individual elements in recording the score. Several mini-galleries are also carried over from the Special Edition DVD, each of which comes encapsulated in a kitschy-designed frame around each piece and in high-definition AVC encodes. The Director's Gallerycarries over the mix of Luhrmann Q&A footage and behind-the-scenes bits, while the Director of Photography Gallery replicates the process in how Donald McAlpine captured many of the visually striking points in the film. An Interview Gallery features entries with Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and many others, while the Marketing branch offers an International Theatrical Trailer (1:31, SD MPEG-2).
So, for completeness' sake, what's missing? Not much, but a few things of note have been dropped for the Blu-ray. Three Commentaries from the Music Edition -- one with Baz Luhrmann, one with Craig Armstrong, and one with Marius De Fries -- have been scraped, as well as the hokey Music Machine jukebox that took you to different points in the film and played a specific song. A third featurette in the Journey of the Song series for "Young Hearts Run Free" (the Mercutio dance number) has also been excised. From the Special Edition, we're missing the TV Spots and Posters from the "Marketing R+J" portion, as well as the two Music Clips, and that's it. Trust me, most of the special features will not be missed, aside from the Luhrmann-specific commentary and the one Music Edition featurette that was dropped.
I've managed to really enjoy Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet every time I've seen it over the past 14+ years, from the blatant delivery of William Shakespeare's dialogue in a modern setting to the lavish style imbued in both the production design and the musical points. Something about the aesthetic created from its collage of elements blends well with the performances, coming together into something that might be a bit louder than what Shakespeare would create in the modern era -- but probably not too far off. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes can be rather affective as Romeo and Juliet, while the simple joys in seeing Harold Perrineau as Mercutio and Paul Rudd as "Prince Charming" / "Bachelor of the Year" still remain entertaining. It's a quirky spin on the oft-told story that's extremely satisfying to behold, never stiff not lacking in punchy innovation around any corner. Fox's Blu-ray really hits this one out of the park, polishing the audiovisual merits to astounding degrees and coming ever-so-close to including all available special features from the previous DVD versions of the film, including a enhanced visual commentary, a making-of documentary for the music, film-making galleries, and more. Very, very Highly Recommended.
Note: Screenshots in this review are from Fox's standard-definition "Music Edition" release, and do not represent the quality of the disc reviewed here.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site