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.
Subtitle options include English Closed Captioning and Spanish.
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.