Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and the Currency of Cool

on November 08, 2016, 12:00am

Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Michael Roffman and Allison Shoemaker turn back the dial 20 years and surf into Verona Beach, where they check in on the Montagues and Capulets.

Allison Shoemaker: Today in “shit that makes me feel super old,” it’s been 20 years since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out. That’s two whole decades of young hearts running free. Like most takes on this particular story, I think I see Romeo +Juliet much differently now than I did when it was released, but I’ll be damned if it still doesn’t pack a hell of a punch for me.

That surprises me a bit, because to be honest, there are some aspects of the movie I’ve spent the better part of those 20 years rolling my eyes about a bit. Those angel wings? That fish tank? Des’ree? Adult me can’t stomach that stuff. That doesn’t stop me from having not a small amount of nostalgic affection for the film, and it certainly doesn’t stop me from loving much of the rest of it. Claire and Leo? Great. Perrineau and Leguizamo? Great. Those gorgeous visuals? The underwater makeout session? “Lovefool” and “#1 Crush” and “Talk Show Host”? Paul Rudd as the square, square Paris? All amazing.

Still, it feels a bit like this one’s fallen out of our collective consciousness. People want to watch a tragic love story and they head straight for The Notebook. Is it just me, or have we gone off R+J a bit?

Michael Roffman: I’m not so sure about that. Leonardo DiCaprio is practically a meme now, which in Internet-speak means he’s immortal, a god, and above all of us. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t see his 1996 mug, complete with that tiny cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Then again, I guess it helps that I often Google “dicaprio romeo beach” every other month and that he’s still making Oscar-winning films that keep him in our hearts. The same goes for Claire Danes, who continues to grab looks at the Emmys and Golden Globes for carrying all the weight in Homeland.

What’s now funny about Romeo + Juliet is how Luhrmann’s modern face lift seems ubiquitous. After all, we’ve been conditioned to remakes, reboots, sequels, and spin-offs, so I think it’s easy to lump this into that mix. Which is unfortunate because, at the time, it was supremely original, a fresh spin on a dated story that’s been required reading in schools ever since Shakespeare croaked centuries ago. It was the epitome of cool, from the brilliant casting, to the neon art direction, and right down to the addicting soundtrack, which serves as a delightful time capsule 20 years later.

romeo 1996 Baz Luhrmanns Romeo + Juliet and the Currency of Cool

Do you remember this time? With Grunge buried six feet under, Alternative began its reign over the airwaves, what with Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Dishwalla, and Collective Soul staking a claim in the charts. But there was also a heavy dose of R&B, thanks to Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Whitney Houston, and even Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. The soundtrack capitalized on both genres, even dusting off a little disco (because, yes, that was totally a thing again), and it all clicked. (I will listen to Gavin Friday’s “Angel” until I, too, die on the slab.) We tend to forget how word of mouth spread back then, and even now I’m a little lost on how this one was passed around, but I do remember this inherent feeling that you had to see this film.

Maybe it was MTV? Yeah, let’s just blame MTV.

Allison Shoemaker: Yeah, you’re right that there’s a meme-factor. Allow me to present one of my most-used GIFs:

unnamed Baz Luhrmanns Romeo + Juliet and the Currency of Cool

Take that, Leo-as-Gatsby-with-champagne!

This is almost certainly a demographic thing, but I remember exactly how this movie got on my radar back then. Granted, as a 12-year-old female drama nerd, I could not have been more in the target demo, but I remember getting perforated postcards like this one (and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one) from somewhere. Seventeen, maybe? Wherever they came from, they were on my walls the second they showed up and stayed there for at least a few years. It’s a solid take on Shakespeare’s play for people of any age, but it was fucking catnip for pre-teens.

I think that’s appropriate, particularly for this interpretation. There will always be versions of this story in which the director looks back with an adult’s eye, seeing the folly and naiveté for what they are while still revering those qualities, as the play does. But Luhrmann’s take doesn’t bother with that kind of distance, and I think maybe that’s why it hit me (and my interior design choices) so hard. It’s certainly why those postcards make sense for the film: Vengeance! Love! Death! Violence! Despair! All in Brilliant Technicolor! Not a thing about it is subdued. And that soundtrack, man. I’ve still got it somewhere.

romeojuliet cd cover Baz Luhrmanns Romeo + Juliet and the Currency of Cool

All the things you describe — the songs, the neon, the Leo, the Claire — seem to spring to the front whenever this movie comes up in conversation (or in one’s Google search history). But as good as all of that is, as terrific as the leads are, I wish we spent more time talking about John Leguizamo and Harold Perrineau. I’m the kind of Shakespeare nerd that likes to argue about best-ever Mercutios, and Perrineau will always be in the mix for me. Way before he yelled “WAAAAAALT,” he nailed the Queen Mab speech and kicked the holy shit out of the death scene. Leguizamo’s role isn’t quite as flashy (no sequins, for one thing), but he’s every bit as good. The whole cast does solid work, but those two? Exemplary.

Michael Roffman: I legitimately shed tears when Perrineau fell to the sand. It was one of those moments growing up where I would want to stop the film for fear of knowing the downward spiral that would follow. Perrineau’s jovial performance adds a sense of whimsy to the entire production, one that most accurately matches Luhrmann’s manic direction, and you really feel his loss when he dies and exits stage left. It’s as if there’s not a reason in the world to slum it one more minute around Verona Beach, and DiCaprio, who looks the best with tears in his eyes, sells that anger. It’s not adolescent humility; it’s unadulterated, veteran hate, the kind of revenge rage that might make Clint Eastwood shudder. By proxy, you fucking hate Leguizamo.

But that’s what I love about this film: You never feel comfortable, even during the more romantic and quieter moments like, say, when DiCaprio and Danes stare at each other around the fish tank (chills) or later when they tussle with one another in the Capulet pool (gasp) or further down when they’re rolling around in bed (sigh). Luhrmann layers the film with this fascinating sense of voyeurism, making it always seem as if we’re not the only ones watching, that something dangerous may be lurking around the corner, whether it’s the all-too-incestuous Tybalt or a drunken, slap-happy Paul Sorvino. He tips this off with the Tarantino-esque shoot-out at the beginning, which pumps our hearts full of rattling adrenaline that never subsides.

None of this would work if you didn’t so want these two to get together. Now, I was only 12 years old when this came out, but even then I was well aware of DiCaprio’s rise to fame, thanks to his Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (not to mention his countless appearances on YM), and I had worshiped Danes on My So-Called Life. So, admittedly, there was a little bit of an “It” factor going on here, at least with regards to how their love and loss played with my emotions, but I also think it’s because they were so young and so up-and-coming that I really had a difficult time grappling with their demise. Oh, and also the fact that Luhrmann tampered with the ending — she wakes up before he dies! — which was such a smart tweak.

Even now, it’s hard to open the soundtrack or put on the film, namely because I know where it goes and how I’ll feel afterward. Before we started writing this piece together, I hadn’t actually done either in years, and partly because of nostalgia. Now, for me, nostalgia is a layered, nuanced feeling; there could be artifacts I revisit on a daily occasion, but there will likely be those I try to stave off as much as possible. That’s not to say I have any ill feelings toward the latter; it’s just that there are some things that put me in an emotional stupor. Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet paralyzes me, and I think it’s partly because I realize I’m aging but also — and this is rather weird — because I know nothing cool ever lasts forever. Cool fades, cool comes and goes.

Cool only matters to those who originally established something as cool, and that’s kind of depressing.

leo 1996 Baz Luhrmanns Romeo + Juliet and the Currency of Cool

Allison Shoemaker: Yeah, I get that. There are things I can’t revisit, and the reasons vary — I’ll never really forgive Woody Allen the human for ruining Annie Hall for me; I don’t think I can ever watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again because it hurts too much; both Requiem for a Dream and The Lobster won’t get a repeat visit from me, for instilling a potent sense of dread (albeit in very different ways). And I’ve got no shortage of nostalgic feeling for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, either, but my feelings aren’t quite as potent as yours, and that makes me a little bummed out, truth be told.

I wonder if maybe that’s because this movie was sold so hard to me. I was 12, too, and remember hearing about Leo’s Oscar nom and seeing Gilbert Grape. I also worshiped at the altar of My So-Called Life. The only huge difference is that I was a 12-year-old girl, and so when I look back on scenes like the aquarium — one I watched over and over again back then — I feel … I’m not sure what. Manipulated? That seems overly harsh, but I can’t come up with a better word. By the time Moulin Rouge rolled around five years later, I was on my guard about pretty much anything — book, TV show, movie, T-shirt, whatever — that seemed designed to take my money in exchange for giving me lots of big feelings amid tons of flash. I still saw it, and I still dug it, but I remember seeing it with a group of girls and being the only one not weeping at the end. One girl turned to the rest of us as the credits rolled and said, “It’s about love, guys!” That was not my response.

I wish I could revisit Romeo + Juliet, and the aquarium scene specifically, with the eyes and mind I had at 12. I loved it unabashedly, because the movie itself was so unabashedly in love — with its stars (who wasn’t?), with its source material, with its aesthetic, with its audience, and with capital-L Love itself. In hindsight, that all seems flat-out audacious, but it’s perfect for an adaptation of this particular story, because whether it’s grown-up love or not, we feel things so, so deeply when we’re young. There’s still plenty of bone-deep emotion out there for grown-ups, but it’s consuming in a totally different way when you’re experiencing it for the first time. That’s probably true of the movie, too, come to think of it.

But looking back with a gimlet eye has its advantages, too. Luhrmann was two years older than we are when Romeo + Juliet came out, so he was probably our age when it was being made. Imagine looking back on what it was like to be that age and in that kind of love and finding a way to put all the adult lessons you’ve learned to work literally everywhere else. There’s so much darkness in this movie, and none of it exists between the pair of star-cross’d lovers. Perhaps that’s why it works — the world is cruel and inhospitable, full of despair and heartbreak, but two kids fall jubilantly in love all the same. Imagine Baz working on the screenplay, creating storyboards, casting, choosing that amazing soundtrack, all the while keeping the love story free of all adult thoughts.

Then imagine him hearing “Lovefool”. Perfect, right? Perfect for the movie, the story, and for being that young, happy, and stupid.

Michael Roffman: A glooming peace this anniversary with it brings. The sun for sorrow will not show his head. Go hence and have more talk of these sad things. Some shall be pardoned, and some punished. For never was a film of more woe than this of Luhrmann and Juliet and her Romeo. … Yeah, I need a smoke.

leo gif Baz Luhrmanns Romeo + Juliet and the Currency of Cool

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