Cult Classics: Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet (1996)’

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we reminisce on one of the greatest love stories of all time.

A then twenty-one year old Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the extravagant and dramatic modern adaptation of the 16th century Shakespearean romantic tragedy Romeo + Juliet (1996) alongside a sixteen year old Claire Danes. Directed by Australian Baz Luhrmann and filmed in Mexico City, the timeless tale of two doomed star crossed lovers is given a speedy “in your face” MTV makeover for the 90s generation. With a vibrant thug Mexican backdrop, Hawaiian T-shirts, grungy soundtrack and neon crosses, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) was raised to cult status upon its release. 

“Our Romeo and Juliet is a little more hard-core and a lot cooler.” – Leonardo DiCaprio

Set on the fictional Verona Beach, two families the Montagues and the Capulets are arch rivals. A gun fight ensues between the Montague boys and Capulet boys creating anarchy on the city streets. The Chief of Police reprimands the two families, warning them that if this behaviour continues, their “lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.”

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Meanwhile, young brooding Romeo Montague is sitting alone on the beach. He is lovesick and forelorn over an unrequited crush on a girl called Rosaline. To cheer him up, the Montague gang decide to gate-crash the Capulet’s masquerade party. Romeo is reluctant, after having a premonition that tragedy is to come, but eventually decides to go.

“O Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo!” – Juliet, Act Two Scene Two.

The Montague boys take drugs. Romeo is overwhelmed by its effects and the energy at the party. He finds refuge in the bathroom  where he is mesmerised by a fish tank. From their first glimpse at each other between the blue illuminated glass, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet instantly fall in love.

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When Capulet gang leader Tybalt sees Romeo, he vows to kill him for invading his family’s home. Romeo and Juliet sneak into a stained glass lift, sensually embrace and passionately kiss. Juliet’s nurse discovering them, reveals that Romeo is a Montague and Juliet is forbidden to see him. Equally stunned, Romeo is taken away from the confrontation but later that night secretly sneaks back into the mansion to reunite with Juliet once again under her balcony.

A stunning forbidden romance ensues between the two teenagers, before things quickly spiral out of control and tragedy strikes.

“Did my heart love til now? Forswear it sight, for I ne’er saw true beauty til this night” – Romeo, Act Two Scene Two.

A then fresh faced pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, had just finished The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse and was Baz Luhrmann’s first choice to play the romantic hero. Leo even flew to Australia on his own dime to film a workshop with Luhrmann to explore the idea of a modern Romeo and Juliet and see if the concept would actually work. “You can’t meet an actor more serious about the craft than Leonardo DiCaprio” said Luhrmann. 

“I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had to jump around in tights. If you really study Romeo and Juliet, you see Romeo was like this gigolo who falls for this girl, Juliet, who says to him ‘Look if you’ve got the balls, put ’em on the table.’ It’s about those things that carry you in a certain direction and you can’t stop. Like when people run off to Vegas and get married. That’s the beauty of it. Romeo and Juliet were both people who had guts.” – Leonardo DiCaprio, Premiere Magazine, October 1996. 

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Leo’s heartthrob status was well and truly cemented. “All the Mexican girls were going mad over him” recalled co-star John Leguizamo, who played Tybalt, Romeo’s enemy and Juliet’s cousin. “We were trying to throw ourselves in their way, hoping that he would rub off on us.”

The crew auditioned hundreds of young actresses for the part of Juliet but were finding it increasingly difficult to fill the part. A 14 year old Natalie Portman even auditioned with Leo but in the end it did not look right. Finally, sixteen year old Claire Danes walked into the auditions and it was then they knew they had found their Juliet.

Danes was the poster girl for the young and disenchanted 90s youth after receiving widespread critical acclaim for her performance in MTV’s My So Called Life. She exuded an air of courage, wisdom and maturity well beyond her years. Danes had the ability to perform intense scenes with a vulnerability that was both brutal and honest. “Claire was strong with Leonardo and was someone you could believe was discovering the overpowering force of the love drug for the first time” Luhrmann said.

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“All these young girls are very impressed that I kissed Leonardo and I survived the experience (giggles). Yes, I’m still here. Yes, I’m still breathing.” – Claire Danes, The Sunday Times, March 1997.

Entertainment Tonight released an exclusive behind the scenes interview with Leo where he reflected on his first meeting with Claire and the moment he knew she was his Juliet. Watch the interview with the two stars below. 

This was Baz Luhrmann’s second feature film after his Australian smash hit Strictly Ballroom. He would later go on to direct Moulin Rouge! with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The critics and young audience went wild for the sexy, violent and stylish Romeo + Juliet. “Even 20 years later- the style in Romeo + Juliet is still amazing – angel wings, sequinned cropped halter tops and skirts, metal buckled boots.” said Humberto Leon to Baz Luhrmann in an interview.

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For Luhrmann, the classic Shakespearean tale of Romeo and Juliet, two teenagers from Verona symbolises that love is a rebellion against all the hatred in the world.

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“All are punished” said Baz Luhrmann commenting on the final scene of the film. “When we think of the world today and how many parts of the world are fighting over what are essentially forgotten grudges. The victims tend to be the young. The victims tend to be the innocent. So just looking at the ending, you’re reminded how Shakespeare touched upon, or was able to illuminate things that are not only relevant today but… that’s what makes it so great. They’re always relevant.”

According to Paul Rudd (Dave Paris in the film), the young cast had a wild ride in Mexico City. Partying into the night at local raves and in DiCaprio’s hotel room. “I think it was a little more wild than it needed to be! DiCaprio’s best friend walking around the hotel naked, asking security for a key to his room, and we’re all sitting there filming it. It was insane!”

A little puppy love developed between DiCaprio and Danes. Their mutual admiration for each other makes for sizzling on-screen chemistry. “I think they had crushes on each other but they kept it very professional” said Leguizamo. DiCaprio had a girlfriend and Danes had a longtime boyfriend. But the pair bonded during filming and still remain friends to this day. “I think they came to rely on each other, which was a great thing to behold” said Luhrmann. 

“The inspiration for the scene between the fish-tank came when Craig Armstrong and I were so desperately looking for a solution as to how to surprise the audience for the first connective moment between Romeo and Juliet. I was younger then and we might have gone out to clubs a bit more. That night after working all day we squirreled out to a place (if I recall correctly called “The Dome”) in Miami. When I came out of the bathroom to wash my hands I looked up and saw a woman combing her hair with a brush through a fish-tank. It was a brilliant device to get guys and girls to connect through the sitting rooms, while protecting each room’s privacy. Obviously you can see where this moment lead…” – Baz Luhrmann via Instagram, Romeo + Juliet 20th anniversary.

For a modern adaptation, Luhrmann was adamant he wanted to keep the dialogue in its traditional format. “We certainly had to fight for it.” said Luhrmann to Humberto Leon for Romeo + Juliet’s 20th anniversary. “Keeping Shakespeare’s text was the number one priority for Craig Pearce and me when we were doing the adaptation. It wasn’t because we thought it was cute, it was a genuine moral anxiety. Changing anything that William Shakespeare had put on the page for a reason.” The modern look of the film and old world language is an unusual combination but it somehow works.

“Our guiding principle or ‘Rule #1′ was simply that every single visual element in the film had to serve the purpose of illuminating the language, and not the other way ’round’. This applies to everything from costumes to place names, down to little “unseen” elements. Even the background signs and props had quotes from the wider Shakespeare canon.” – Baz Luhrmann, Opening Ceremony, November 2016.

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“When we really started to crack the (Romeo + Juliet) world visually. We were drawing from Latin countries, where the idea of religion and politics sat closely together.” recalled Luhrmann.

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Romeo and Juliet – Music from the Motion Picture

The film’s orchestral score was composed by Nellee Hooper, Craig Armstrong and Marius de Vries. The soundtrack reached No.2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and went five times Platinum. It opens with the seductive “#1 Crush” by grunge band Garbage to bubble gum pop “Lovefool” by the Cardigans. Des’ree’s “Kissing You”, Prince’s “When Dove’s Cry” to Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host”. Thom Yorke of Radiohead, composed the song “Exit Music (For a Film)” specially for the film.

Even after celebrating its 20th anniversary last year, Romeo + Juliet still remains a timeless classic re-discovered by new audiences everyday. This is why Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) has earnt a place on Student View’s list of ‘Cult Classics’.

Follow Baz Luhrmann on Instagram: @bazluhrmann

Follow Student View on Instagram: @studentviewoz

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