Full disclosure: I was young when this film came out –prepubescent and years away from being able to see it legally due to its PG-13 rating. As time would have it, I was at the prime age of seven when William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet hit theaters in 1996. I remember seeing the movie somewhere, with someone back in Missouri where I grew up. Most likely, I watched it at our house one day with my older sister, but all I could remember was enjoying it a lot; so much that I bought the soundtrack. Maybe I liked it because of its theatrics or maybe it was the language. Nah, I’m sure my fancy was linked to Leonardo DiCaprio, the teenage heartthrob who, at the time, seemed born to play Romeo; the eminent, most copied character in love stories of all time.
Ah, 1996. A time where you couldn’t walk into a mall or a movie theater without hearing a gaggle of girls screaming out, “Leo!” You don’t remember? Try and recall all those teen zines with DiCaprio’s face staring back at you? If you’re too young to remember (which makes me feel a bit better), then here’s a good barometer to work with: Think of Justin Bieber on some of the same magazines now and multiply that by 10. That was the fame of Leonardo DiCaprio around this time in Hollywood, especially after this movie released. This would only heighten the following year, when Leo-enthusiasts across the world saw him freeze his ass off in the Atlantic Ocean in James Cameron’s multi-billion dollar blockbuster smash, Titanic. But that was then.
Watching this modern twist on Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet nowadays, DiCaprio doesn’t steal the spotlight too much, rather a different component does – the film’s music. It’s hard to decide which is more admirable – DiCaprio or the music – but given the article, I’ll have to lean towards the soundtrack. Besides, there’s plenty of articles out there that drool all over him. Anyways, pushing DiCaprio out of the limelight, and focusing on the film’s music, credit must be given where credit’s due. That goes to music producer Nellee Hooper (Madonna, Bjork).
Pervasively heard in the trendiest megaclubs of Bristol, England and New York to top radio in America, Hooper remixed and produced material by the most revered names in music at the time, solidifying her one of the most in-demand producers at the time. She was advancing the popularity of a less organic sound that further solidified the death of grunge from the early 1990s and art-makers of all kind were taking note. One in particular was the film’s creator and co-screenplay writer, Baz Luhrmann. This eventually landed her the challenging job of putting music to his new film. This wasn’t her first commission to piece music together for film (e.g. GoldenEye, Black Rain), but her partnership with Luhrmann was her most crucial project in her fairly new career at the time. The task of producing music for your average film is one thing, but any fan of Luhrmann’s films (Moulin Rouge!) knows how crucial the score is to his overall works. Not only was this project one of her greatest achievements, it was also one of her most honoring because music is the lifeblood of a Luhrmann film. If she were to have failed to match the music to Luhrmann’s directorial vision, the missing grandeur would have been utterly disappointing
Okay, so the idea of this film was to use the script from the most famous Shakespearean play ever written, but give it an edge that works with a present day setting. It’s still set in Verona (technically Verona Beach), but it looks more like Venice Beach, CA judging from its hints of palm trees and grimy boardwalks. As for the feuding families of the play, the Capulet and Montague, they are updated as big business rivals, but still as hating of each other as they are in the original. To go along with this new facelift on a classic piece of literature, the music had to be fresh, but not too incredibly artsy for the teenage moviegoers that were its intended audience. It also needed to be familiar, but epic to match its tale. With a soundtrack that features golden bands of the nineties like Garbage and Radiohead to gospel choir renditions of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ to remixed seventies dance hits, the variety allows for robust experiences of different sounds and styles. Its well-boding mixture of different genres is one of the clearest reasons why it is appreciated enormously; so enormously that in 2007, Capitol Records thought it worthy enough for a celebration of its 10 year anniversary with a second release of the soundtrack that features a handful of added bonus songs not on the original soundtrack.
What makes this film work cohesively with music is its fast paced, intensity-filled scenes of motion and a great first example of this in the opening scene credits. As the camera swiftly zooms in and out, up and down onto fair Verona, fearing percussion booms in tandem with a heady choir of female sopranos serve as a precursor to the drama to come. With this version of Romeo + Juliet that replaces swords with guns (Sword 9mms as they are called) and is flourished with other advancements not in existence before the 16th century, antiquity is intentionally played down from the get-go during the scene where the Montague boys are driving down the interstate in an ugly yellow Jeep-looking convertible. As the three of them are flying down the highway looking nineties as ever (Jamie Kennedy has pink hair!), abrasive, fuzzy rock-rap blares as the boys shout out at the cars they pass along the way. They want to portray an image of being raw and fearless of any Capulet who even thinks of putting up a fight with their kind. However, the boys are petrified.
The film shifts its hot-tempered mood after an intense action scene where Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin, portrayed by the wonderful John Leguizamo) shows the Montague boys who’s in charge as they are frightened by their guns in a gas station parking lot. After pissing off the Chief of Police and putting Verona Beach into a frenzy of absolute fantastical absurdity from the “civil war”, both families eventually drop their arms and tensions simmer for the time being. While the Montague boys ride home with their parents after the shootout, there is a moment of solidarity among the Montagues for the story’s not-yet star crossed lover, Romeo, who’s been depressed from the heartbreak Rosaline has caused him and also in isolation from the action between the two families. As the orange sun sets behind a landscape of an abandoned theatre near the coastline that Romeo is hanging around near, he sits all alone, sorrow filled as he writes in his journal and smokes his cigarette. During a short soliloquy, Thom Yorke aids his sulk with ‘Talk Show Host”, a song that capsulate Romeo’s misfit persona and his self-deprecation as a young Montague. The visuals pander to the downtempo musical patterns of the track as the director captures a salacious scene of a gentleman pulling out money for a woman, a street performer treated as a stripper in her tight gold sequence party dress who dances seductively on a quiet boardwalk somewhere in the vicinity of Romeo.
Anyone that’s familiar with Luhrmann’s work knows that he is unabashedly campy and Romeo + Juliet is no exception. A Luhrmann film wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t loud, colorful, or impossibly fantastical like they are known to be. During the Sycamore Grove scene outside the Capulet mansion, the extraordinary is taken to the next level. When the Nurse, Juliet’s closest confidant, advises her to “go seek happy nights” following her mother’s boasting of the governor’s son (Juliet’s arranged husband to be), Juliet (Claire Danes) stands outside her bedroom on her balcony and watches the fireworks burst into the air, as family celebrates in the Sycamore Grove below. As the light from the fireworks brightens up her face, Irish singer Gavin Friday, who’s had his work in film scores prior, breathily croons: “Angel, hold onto me. Love is all around me” on top of ethereal chimes that quickly become layered with delicate piano, shakers, and a dampened beat for a dreamy sensation. It doesn’t hurt that she’s wearing an Angel costume, either.
Now that Juliet’s anticipation for the masquerade party is at a peak, Romeo stares at the fireworks above and his Montague crew are nearby recklessly shooting their “sword 9mms” around the town dressed ludicrously in kilts and Viking hats. While the boys are being their boisterous selves, in comes the gayest version of Mercutio (Romeo’s friend) adapted for film. If you’ve ever read into the too-close-to-be-friends relationship between Romeo and Mercutio, Mercutio is way too adamant in his opinion about Romeo’s affair for Juliet. His jealously of her hold on Romeo is far too potent and obvious to not be considered personal as he witnesses Romeo fall for Juliet later in the film. For all of those who are firm in their belief that Mercutio is gay, Luhrmann portrays him in a two piece silver sequins getup with pumps to match and smudged red lipstick for a final touch of femininity. The music that introduces him is nothing short of embracing as well. Disco has and will always be connoted to gay culture and with the remixed ’70s disco song “Young Hearts Run Free” (originally recorded by Candi Staton) that sounds at his arrival, the signal of his orientation is louder than words can speak. The song is extended by the slip of a white pill (Ecstasy, another gay indicative) to Romeo and this dance party continues for a performance that Mercutio puts on for the crowd at the party.
Once Romeo regains his sobriety after dunking his head into a bowl of water outside the dance floor, the story of Romeo and Juliet begins where they catch each other behind a fish tank. Rosaline who? While Romeo is engaged with his new love interest, the party has stopped for a performance from soul singer Des’ree on stage. When this film was being marketed, this sensual power ballad was used as the theme song of every trailer. Though its lyrics are “I’m kissing you,” no kissing has happened just yet, but it’s not like the viewers are in for a surprise anyway. Overall, the music becomes increasingly epic and church-oriented as the marriage ceremony becomes a planned event. A children’s choir carries many of the proceeding songs like “When Doves Cry” (Quindon Tarver) when Romeo is granted permission from Friar Lawrence to be wed to Juliet and with “Everybody’s Free to Feel Good”, which Baz Luhrmann sampled a year later for his song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, the seven-minute spoken word song that preaches the importance of wearing sunscreen for the sake of physical beauty to where to live to “the class of 2007,” the generation Luhrmann is advising.
One major addition to the film’s soundtrack, separate from its influence to the overall film because it’s slipped in for only a few seconds, is the song “Lovefool” by the Cardigans. This song served the band a great deal of monetary success and international stardom, but the effect of the band’s extended success from a Hollywood blockbuster turned many of its cult followers off, calling the band names like “sell-out.” Before the Swedish band made the charts in the US, lead singer Nina Persson and her band had already been making albums for a few years back in Malmo, a town in the south of Sweden where most of the band gained its earlier recognition. I guess it doesn’t matter now because its been over a decade since The Cardigans have been around, but the song “Lovefool” serves as one of the most memorable songs of the nineties and is still heard on the radio all the time. So for next time you hear “Lovefool” on the radio, thank Romeo + Juliet for serving as its platform.
There are countless reasons to digress on why this soundtrack is so remarkable. For one, it works with the film, and we can thank Nelle Hooper for that. But also, these songs all just work well with one another, even as a separate entity, apart from the film. Listen to the music, focus on the instrumentation, even the angst-ridden lyrics. Every track carries this quasi-industrial, post-modern glaze that screams late-’90s. Well, maybe not Des’ree, but given that her top singles charted in the ’90s, she fits right in, as well. Now, some of you may be lost here, especially those who weren’t old enough to even remember the whole “Leo” movement, and for that, it’d be interesting to hear your take. In some respects, one can argue that this soundtrack’s a dusty relic, to a decade that’s becoming more and more distant than we’d like to believe. I mean…can you really believe it’s been close to 15 years now? Mind boggling. In sum, relevant or not, the music here speaks for itself — especially if you give the film the time of day. It’s beautiful, atmospheric music that soundtracks a film of equal nature. If you haven’t seen it, it’s never to late, even if you wanna hop on the DiCaprio bandwagon. You’ve seen Inception, right?