How “Romeo + Juliet” rocked Shakespeare for a new generation


I was in my ninth grade English class when I watched Romeo + Juliet for the first time. It was the early 2000s: the era of flip phones, AIM and Myspace. Shakespeare has long had a reputation for being difficult to teach, as the language has evolved over the centuries. But in the new millennium, literary teachers faced uncharted territory in the battle for student attention span.

When my class was watching Romeo and Juliet, A film adaptation of Franco Zeffirelli in 1968, it didn’t help much in translating the words of the 16th century playwright for a 21st century audience. So when my teacher walked into TV on Wheels and brought up the VHS tape of the 1996 version of Baz Luhrmann – who is now celebrating his 25th birthday – my peers and I were predictably skeptical.

But it didn’t take long for even the student most opposed to Shakespeare to be utterly captivated by the dizzying, vibrant cinematography that is now the cornerstone of Luhrmann’s canon. Set in a fictional, modern beach in Verona Beach (an actual mix of Miami, Mexico City and Boca del Rio, Veracruz), the film opens with a news anchor reading the play’s famous prologue and setting the scene for “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

What follows are two hours of relentless action and drama against the most widely read love story of all time. Of course, everyone knows this story will end tragically, but before that, a lot has to happen. The play might be about a teenage love affair, but it’s also about how class, family, and religion shape who and what we love.


Luhrmann’s lavish and visually indulgent interpretation helped bring these themes to life for a new generation. As exaggerated as Romeo + Juliet perhaps, there is an unsettling realism in Luhrmann’s contemporary account of secular history. It seems entirely plausible that these spoiled children from wealthy, warring families will cross paths and end up falling in love with each other. Maybe not within 24 hours, but still it feels as if it could happen.

Part of what makes Luhrmann’s adaptation so accessible are his stars. Leonardo DiCaprio is in a league of its own today, but in 1996 he was still pre-Titanic and had mostly done television until then. Doing it Romeo practically cemented his status as an idol and propelled him to a new level of stardom. Claire Danes followed a similar path after taking on the role of Juliet, becoming a sought-after actress who still serves emotions as the Ugly Crying Queen.

In addition to the two lead roles, John Leguizamo as Tybalt and Harold Perrineau as Mercutio are also perfectly portrayed, bringing not only diversity in ethnicity and skin color, but also diversity in craftsmanship. and interpretation. Tybalt of Leguizamo is devious and fueled by a constant craving for rage and revenge; Mercutio de Perrineau lives for the spotlight and distorts and blurs gender norms.

Both ping-pong between unabashedly flamboyant and hopelessly vulnerable, and their performance leaves absolutely everything on the screen. And then there’s Paul Rudd, whose ageless charm somehow makes Dave Paris – noble Juliet’s parents try to put her in place – a rather lovable character, though he’s totally oblivious to the fact that Juliet is. in love with someone else.

leonardo dicaprio romeo and juliet


Beyond the cinematography and the casting, the film is also particularly marked by its soundtrack, both electric and dark. when we first meet DiCaprio as our sad Romeo, he sits at the water’s edge at sunset, wearing a suit jacket over a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He keeps a diary, ruminating on his unrequited love for Rosaline, Lord Capulet’s invisible niece (in the 1996 adaptation, her full name is Fulgencio Capulet).

As he smokes a cigarette and takes a stroll on the orange sand beach, Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” begins to play. The moment is so emo that any teenager, whatever their era, could relate to. (Olivia Rodrigo watched Romeo + Juliet Again? Curious minds should know.)

There’s also the cute encounter between Romeo and Juliet in the bathroom at the Capulet Mansion, as Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You” plays in the background – only to reveal that Des’ree herself is singing. actually at the big party in the other room. I always I get goosebumps every time I think about it.

Other notable musical moments in the film come from the late Quindon Tarver, who, as an altar boy, sings moving covers of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)”. Both interpretations are included in the soundtrack, which has sold over two million copies, achieving double platinum status.

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Reception of the film was mixed at the time. Roger ebert wasn’t totally sold on the radical narrative, referring to it as “the mess that the new punk version of Romeo and Juliet fact of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The late film critic gave him just two stars, calling both DiCaprio and Danes “talented and attractive young actors” but who were, in his view at least, “above their heads.”

Despite divided reviews, the film grossed nearly $ 150 million worldwide and was defeated Titanic at the 1998 BAFTAs for Best Direction, Original Music and Production Design. Considering the way Titanic dominated pop culture discourse in the late 90s, that’s quite an achievement.

Few contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work have had so much cultural resonance, probably because none have been able to capture the specific combination of star power, moving musicality, and visual intensity that Luhrmann achieved. with Romeo + Juliet. A notable mention is Maqbool, a 2003 Indian crime drama based on Macbeth, with Irrfan Khan as the main character. It hasn’t received as much worldwide recognition, but if you like to see Shakespeare play out in the modern world, this is essential.

Romeo and Juliet


Maybe what makes Romeo + Juliet more relevant than ever is its ability to take root in the tradition of the past while leaving room for tomorrow and the way of the future, whatever it may be. That overwhelming sense of uncertainty that surrounds our youth, it never really goes away. The time that turns into something intangible and hard to measure seems to be the essence of adulthood, especially in our current climate.

I often feel disconnected from the present, because I can’t make sense of it. This is also how the characters in the film are portrayed, and their lack of purpose feels like a heartwarming kind of kinship that I can revisit over and over again. In truth, Romeo + Juliet makes Shakespeare more timeless than ever.

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