It's safe to say I was pretty obsessed with Baz Luhrmann's innovative production of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet when it came out in 1996. In fact, I still have a promotional still of Claire Danes as Juliet, staring at the stars while wearing her angel's wings for the costume ball, tacked up on my wall. That Halloween, I fashioned some angel's wings of my own and told everyone I was in costume as the boy version of the movie Claire. I was going through a fabulous phase. I hated grunge and was doing my best to bring Britpop flare to Oregon. I'd like to think it worked.
I don't remember when I last saw Romeo + Juliet, however. I remember watching Luhrmann's next film, Moulin Rouge!, about five or six years ago, so it was at least before that. So, visiting Luhrmann's explosion of youthful energy again after all these years is a bit like going back to my own younger days, though now filtered through the prism of new technology. Thankfully, Luhrmann's take on Shakespeare was not merely an update for the '90s, it was ahead of its time in terms of visual punch. It's almost like the science has finally caught up with the art.
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was heralded on its original release for translating the Bard for modern audiences. Teens were wooed to the theatre to watch Leonardo DiCaprio brood and Claire Danes swoon as the infamous star cross'd lovers. Luhrmann didn't mess with the story: it is still a tale of warring families, the Capulets and the Montagues, who are rocked by the impetuous romance of their youngest children. In secret, the pair go off and get married, but violence soon puts Romeo into exile, and a scheme to free both children from their family names and allow them a new life goes wrong, and they end up dead.
In terms of timeless themes, Romeo + Juliet couldn't be more identifiable, but tangled language and stuffy staging meant a lot of people found it to be too much like homework, and thus something to be avoided. Luhrmann upped the pace and edited the material to have an MTV-sensibility. Slick cuts, current music, garish costumes, and two fetching stars made the film a hit then, and it remains so now. There is a vivaciousness to Luhrmann's work, an audacious abandonment of traditional storytelling rules. He transplanted the story from Italy to South America, decorated the sets with Catholic iconography, and put guns in the hands of his duelists. Now Romeo + Juliet's teen tragedy is a lurid cinematic opera.
Both DiCaprio and Danes are excellent in the roles, with Danes in particular adopting Shakespearean speech in a way that sounds fresh and natural. She was always an expressive young actress, capable of portraying girlish emotional swings with all the seriousness an adolescent would place on such feelings without slipping into self-parody. Also brilliant is Harold Perrineau (Lost, The Matrix) as Mercutio, arguably the most complicated role in the movie. Luhrmann puts Romeo's right-hand man in drag when he introduces him to us, and Perrineau's knowing performance emphasizes an underlying homoerotic tension to his relationship with Romeo. Prone to both sarcasm and outbursts of anger, Mercutio walks the line between comedy and tragedy, love and death. Perrineau's physicality turns that walk into a dance. He is in a ballet with his own internal conflicts.
Other cast member include Jon Lequizamo, Paul Sorvino, Paul Rudd, Pete Postlethwaite, and even Jesse Bradford and Jamie Kennedy in very small roles. The true star remains the style, though. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is a two-hour burst of sound and color. The film is so daring, so about and of its time, it could have easily grown dated or, God forbid, irrelevant in the intervening fifteen years. It has done neither of these things. Baz Luhrmann has only strengthened the source material's endurance, and in doing so, put together his own enduring creation. It starts with thrills and ends with tears, just the way it should be. It is a story and a film for any age, and in all the ways that phrase can be taken to mean: then, now, young, old. Romeo + Juliet has been told and retold many times and in many ways, but it has never been told quite like this.
The remastered version of the movie is put on disc at a wide 2.40:1 with a 1080p bitrate. Romeo + Juliet looks phenomenal, with Luhrmann's signature style being perfectly suited for digital presentation. Colors are punchy and vibrant, and fine details are newly visible in every scene. The subtle hues of the scene where the leads look at each other through the fishtank is as carefully rendered as the fireworks and sparks of Mercutio's disco performance are given pizzazz. The slow-motion work retains a quality grain, while close-ups show a natural skin texture.
The soundtrack has been remixed in 5.1 DTS and has lots of between speaker effects and a powerful volume modulation that let's the music and histrionics of the battles come through with the appropriate bombast. Dialogue is crisp and easy to follow.
Subtitle options include English Closed Captioning and Spanish.
Romeo + Juliet has been on digital disc more than once over the years, and its two editions have had different extras. A good portion of those extras are compiled here, with only some minor promo bits and the more extensive commentaries from the 2007 Music Edition, one of which was a solo track with director Baz Luhrmann and the other a joint track with composers Craig Armstrong and Marius De Vries, having gone missing in action. The audio commentary that remains is a group track from the 2002 Special Edition with Luhrmann, co-writer Craig Pearce, production designer Catherine Martin, cinematographer Don McAlpine and co-producer Martin Brown. Though the audio is the same, the track has been updated with a picture-in-picture option that will show you behind-the-scenes production materials at the same time.
Four different segments showing rehearsal footage are labeled "From the Bazmark Vault" and offer mildly entertaining glimpses into the film process. This, I believe, is exclusive to this edition.
Carried over from the Music Edition is a nearly 50-minute documentary called Romeo + Juliet: The Music, which pretty much is exactly as it sounds. The soundtrack CD for this movie was fairly popular, and the music is part of the unique presentation, so it makes sense that this would be a focus for bonuses. There are also three short song-specific documentaries ported from there to here, while different short segments have been carried from the Special Edition as part of the "Filmmaker and Interview Galleries" section. Though called galleries, they are really interview bits with Luhrmann, Donald McAlpine, and actors.
Finally, there is an international trailer and a BD-Live connection that allows access to IMDB info related to the movie.
Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is at once a vital reimagining of the classic play and a surprising reinvention of cinema. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the doomed lovers, the movie updates the tragic romance to a modern setting. Luhrmann's daring visual style borrows from music videos, advertising, and the colorful patterns of South America, turning Shakespeare into a carnival. The newly remastered image looks fantastic on Blu-Ray, and the combination of old and new supplements make for a more focused package than previous DVD editions.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.