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.
20th Century Fox via Getty Images

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.

That the story is framed through a news report makes “Romeo + Juliet” a mark of its time ― a time that has morphed but not faded. Circa 1996, artists made music so they could turn that music into glossy short films that advanced the commerce of their fame. Television was the currency. In that landscape, the Montagues and Capulets dicker because they know the action will be documented. They are the stars of their own music videos and newspaper headlines, and they wear the roles well. That’s what makes stolen moments between our two heroes so palpable.

When Romeo and Juliet ― played lovingly by Claire Danes ― first spot each other through the warmly lit aquarium at the Capulets’ costume ball, it is the movie’s first moment of tranquility. They are suddenly a world apart from the festivities in the next room, where Mercutio (Harold Perrineau), dressed in drag (appropriately, given some scholars’ queer readings of the character), performs “Young Hearts Run Free” as though he’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter welcoming guests in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” By the time the iconic balcony scene has plunged into the pool outside Juliet’s window, we see our central couple not as whiny teenagers (which they are), but as perhaps the only sensible members of two families lost to their own menacing history. It’s Luhrmann’s frenetic excess that brings us there. Without it, the placidity of their chemistry would be less finite.

This is the version of “Romeo and Juliet” that you wished your English teacher would show instead of the stuffier 1968 rendition directed by Franco Zeffirelli (which, for the record, is also great). Danes and DiCaprio deliver Shakespeare’s abridged verse fluently, and coupled with a camera style that frames the action instead of the dialogue, the movie shepherds along its audience in a way that even finer adaptations of the Bard’s work can struggle to do. Guns replace swords and can be fired from afar, making the violence seem especially thoughtless, particularly when paralleled with the wealth indicted in the two tribes’ legacies.

Ron Galella via Getty Images

The movie also gave us Danes and DiCaprio on the cusp of fame. Danes was a key player in 1994’s “Little Women” and the star of the cruelly short-lived teen drama “My So-Called Life.” DiCaprio was an Oscar nominee for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and a charmer from the final season of “Growing Pains.” But “Romeo + Juliet” pushed both to another level, collecting $227 million worldwide (when adjusted for inflation). In a decade becoming increasingly saturated with effects-driven blockbusters, that’s a crazy sum for a Shakespeare vehicle whose stars weren’t yet verifiable A-listers. It’s also a testament to the stylings of Luhrmann, who seized on the mood of the moment, sandwiching the project between the 1992 rom-com “Strictly Ballroom” and the 2001 opulence buffet “Moulin Rouge!” ― two other films that use music theatrically.

You can see the cinematic cousins of “Romeo + Juliet” sprinkled throughout the late 1990s. Engaging teens and 20-somethings in dynamic ways, these movies bridged classic story models with contemporary fads, always punctuated by a fondness for popular culture. It’s all over the slasher-flick rules outlined in “Scream,” the rock-’n’-roll Other-ness featured in “The Craft” and “Empire Records,” the steampunk silliness of “Wild Wild West,” the hip-hop politics of Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth,” the look-at-Michael-Jordan-go lovability of “Space Jam” (and its equally famous soundtrack), the prurient “American Pie,” the cotton-candy aesthetics of the macabre comedy “Jawbreaker,” even the camp that replaced the sterility of the “Batman” series in Joel Schumacher’s two installments. (Not to mention Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke, a “Romeo + Juliet” descendant whose obsession with surveillance was ripe for the dawning millennium.) Despite these films’ varying quality, they all boast “dancing shoes with nimble souls,” a quality plastered across Luhrmann’s film, even if Romeo tells Mercutio he instead has a “soul of lead.” Some critics were dismissive of “Romeo + Juliet,” and it’s worth noting that its energy is harder to sustain in the second half ― but this movie has adopted a worthy significance among Gen X-ers and millennials. It’s easy to see why.

“Romeo + Juliet” danced its way into the zeitgeist 20 years ago, and it hasn’t left since. Its soundtrack went triple platinum, its stars romanced our hearts with their soft features and impassioned delivery, and the music-video apex that Madonna and Michael Jackson had launched 15 years earlier was crystallized on screens larger than we’d imagined, and with an energy so grungy and of its moment that it became eternal.

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