Back to the 90s: Romeo + Juliet

Aren’t you totally wiggin’? Over the next three months, Friday nights at the TIFF Lightbox will feature 11 of your favourite 90s classics. Grab your coziest flannel and let your mood ring read excitement as we rediscover these nostalgic masterpieces.

A Little Bit About Rom + Jul

1996, directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Claire Danes, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Leguizamo, and Harold Perrineau.

The story

Romeo’s in love with Rosaline, but oh wait forget that, he’s just seen his one true love at the Capulet party. They make eyes across a fish tank and are both super beautiful. Paul Rudd dances in an astronaut costume and charms the pants off everyone except Juliet. The next morning the young lovers get married, but Romeo ditches Juliet to go to the beach and see his friends. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt shows up and tries to pick a fight. Mercutio, who seems to be harboring some serious feelings for Romeo, defends his honor and is killed. Then Romeo kills Tybalt, which is a pretty bad wedding present for Juliet, but they consummate the marriage anyway. Romeo has to skip town, Father Laurence hatches a dumb scheme, and everyone dies.

Why you loved it then

This is our second Back to the 90s Shakespeare adaptation, after last week’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Although both films take place in 90s California, director Baz Luhrmann chose to retain the original language in Romeo + Juliet. The film is truly a time capsule of 90s pop culture. Remember when metal detectors were being installed in all our schools? It doesn’t seem so crazy that the warring families are all carrying guns. The Montague boys take ecstasy and crash the Capulet party. Leo’s sun-bleached hair is perfection. The setting is such a precise moment in the twentieth century, but the passion and teen angst is universal. All of a sudden the sixteenth-century language doesn’t seem so out of place.

Rom+Jul_photo1

This is in large part due to the perfect naïveté and earnestness of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Of course the story of a three-day life-or-death romance is absurd through our jaded eyes, but their foolish passion is utterly believable from that first glance through the fish tank to the final gut-wrenching sob in the chapel.

ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

JULIET: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

JULIET: You kiss by the book.

Sigh. Young love.

Why you need to watch it again

Baz Luhrmann is a divisive filmmaker; people seem to either love him or hate him, but it’s impossible to be ambivalent about his over-the-top spectacular creations. Romeo + Juliet was meant to be seen in a cinema. Lights flash, cymbals crash, and it’s like you’re being punched in the face with beauty. Some people don’t care for that, but I’m pretty sure they just don’t have souls.

When I discover a director that I like I find it interesting to go back through their career and see how their style evolved. Romeo + Juliet was Luhrmann’s second feature film, following 1992’s Strictly Ballroom. You can really see his tentative experimentation in that first film, which in my opinion he perfected by 2001’s Moulin Rouge!. The thing about Luhrmann’s aggressively dramatic style is that it only works because of contrast. He builds his stories to a crescendo of passion and then he suddenly mutes the sound and all that’s left is aching silence. It is Romeo’s car chase after Tybalt. His tortured screams of “Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him!” The explosion of his gun and Tybalt’s body falling back into the fountain. And then everything stops, and in silence we are left alone with terrifying grief.

Rom+Jul_photo2

Plus, who doesn’t want to see a good Claire Danes cry face? Ever since My So-Called Life (1994), I’ve been powerless against her tears. Her chin starts to wobble, and I’m a goner. Let’s take a look:

Rom+Jul_photo3

The original MSCL cry face (1994)

Upping the ante in Rom + Jul (1996)

Upping the ante in Rom + Jul (1996)

A master of her craft in Homeland (2011)

A master of her craft in Homeland (2011)

God, I love her.

The soundtrack

90s nostalgia is nothing without the music. The soundtrack of Romeo + Juliet is possibly one of the best in this series.

  1. “#1 Crush” – Garbage
  2. “Local God” – Everclear
  3. “Angel” – Gavin Friday
  4. “Pretty Piece of Flesh” – One Inch Punch
  5. “Kissing You (Love Theme from Romeo + Juliet)” – Des’ree
  6. “Whatever (I Had a Dream)” – Butthole Surfers
  7. “Lovefool” – The Cardigans
  8. “Young Hearts Run Free” – Kym Mazelle
  9. “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” – Quindon Tarver
  10. “To You I Bestow” – Mundy
  11. “Talk Show Host” – Radiohead
  12. “Little Star” – Stina Nordenstam
  13. “You and Me Song” – The Wannadies
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