The Everlasting Frenzy Of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ 20 Years Later

The Shakespeare update starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes captured a generation transfixed by MTV.

The moment the world fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, he was coated in the yellow shadow of a sunset, puffing on a cigarette and journaling about “brawling love” and “loving hate.” He trudged across a shabby beach, windblown hair framing his bitter eyes. Radiohead’s guitars plucked in the background, Thom Yorke crooning, “I want to be someone else.” Just shy of looking straight into the camera, DiCaprio turned his angsty head toward the surrounding decadence ― a woman in a tight dress shimmied in slow motion for an apparent male client ― and his soul toward our eternal infatuation. We didn’t want him to be anyone else.

The movie, of course, is Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” Twenty years after the disco-punk Shakespeare update grabbed the No. 1 spot at the box office and fermented the kinetic gloss of the MTV era, Luhrmann’s film remains a modern classic. Not only did it make a true star of DiCaprio, becoming his dreamiest, highest-grossing release to date (soon to be unseated by “Titanic,” obviously), but “Romeo + Juliet” also boasted a stellar mixtape soundtrack featuring Garbage, Everclear and The Cardigans. Most importantly, it connected with hip audiences by turning Shakespearean verse into a two-hour postmodern music video.

“Romeo + Juliet” begins with a blank screen and several bars of “Ave Maria,” which screeches to a halt when a television lights up and a newscaster reports on a pair of “star-crossed lovers.” This isn’t the same stodgy Shakespeare you read in class, Luhrmann announces, and the movie throttles forward with frenzy. The marquees atop adjacent skyscrapers scream “Capulet” and “Montague.” Here, our sparring clans are corporate mafia dynasties, their children comprising impetuous street gangs. When we meet the pink-haired Montagues, they pour out of a Jeep like the rowdy stars of an Offspring video. Our first look at the Capulets comes via close-ups of their platform boots crunching across the sidewalk, like gangster fashion models displaced from a Western saloon. Luhrmann defines these turf wars through the kaleidoscopic aesthetics that appealed ― and still do ― to a generation suddenly glued to MTV’s rotation. This is a contest between abrasive punk-rock Americana and subversive macho-glam wannabes, with a central romance involving two lusty teenagers who see through their families’ charades.

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