How Romeo + Juliet Shook Up Shakespeare for a New Generation

I was in my ninth grade English class when I watched Romeo + Juliet for the first time. It was the early 2000s: the era of flip phones, AIM, and Myspace. Shakespeare had long carried the reputation of being tough to teach, as language has evolved over the centuries. But in the new millennium, literature teachers were facing unchartered territory in the battle for students’ attention spans.

When my class watched Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation, it didn’t offer much help in translating the words of the 16th-century playwright for a 21st-century audience. So when my teacher rolled in the TV on wheels and popped in the VHS tape of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version—which marks its 25th anniversary today—my peers and I were predictably skeptical.

But it didn’t take long for even the most Shakespeare-averse student to become totally enthralled with the dizzying, vibrant cinematography that’s now a cornerstone of Luhrmann’s canon. Set in a fictional, modern-day Verona Beach (a real-life mash-up of Miami, Mexico City, and Boca del Rio, Veracruz), the movie opens with a news anchor reading the play’s famous prologue and setting the scene for “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

What follows are two hours of unrelenting action and drama set against the most widely read love story of all time. Of course, everyone knows this story will end tragically, but before then, a lot has to happen. The play may be about a teen romance, but it’s also about the ways in which class, family, and religion shape who and what we love.

Luhrmann’s lavish, visually indulgent interpretation helped bring these themes to life for a new generation. As over-the-top as Romeo + Juliet may be, there’s an unsettling realism to Luhrmann’s contemporary retelling of the age-old story. It seems completely plausible that these spoiled kids from wealthy, warring families would cross paths and end up falling for one another. Maybe not within the span of 24 hours, but still, it feels like it could happen.

Part of what makes Luhrmann’s adaptation so accessible are its stars. Leonardo DiCaprio is in a league of his own today, but back in 1996, he was still pre-Titanic and had done mostly television up to that point. Making him Romeo all but cemented his heartthrob status and propelled him into a new level of celebritydom. Claire Danes followed a similar path after stepping into the role of Juliet, becoming a sought-after actress who’s still serving up emotions as the queen of ugly crying.

In addition to the two leads, John Leguizamo as Tybalt and Harold Perrineau as Mercutio are also perfectly cast, bringing not just diversity in terms of ethnicity and skin color, but also diversity of craft and interpretation. Leguizamo’s Tybalt is snaky and fueled by a constant need for rage and revenge; Perrineau’s Mercutio lives for the spotlight and bending and blurring gender norms.

Both ping-pong between unapologetically flamboyant and hopelessly vulnerable, and their performances leave absolutely everything on the screen. And then there’s Paul Rudd, whose ageless charm somehow makes Dave Paris—the nobleman Juliet’s parents are trying to set her up with—a rather lovable character, despite being totally oblivious to the fact that Juliet is enamored with someone else.

Beyond the cinematography and cast, the film is also uniquely marked by its soundtrack, which is equal parts electric and somber. When we first meet DiCaprio as our forlorn Romeo, he’s sitting by the water at sunset, wearing a suit jacket over a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He’s journaling—brooding over his unrequited love for Rosaline, the unseen niece of Lord Capulet (in the 1996 adaptation, his full name is Fulgencio Capulet).

As he smokes a cigarette and roams around the sandy, orange-drenched beach, Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” starts playing. The moment is so emo that any teen—regardless of era—could relate. (Has Olivia Rodrigo watched Romeo + Juliet yet? Inquiring minds need to know.)

There’s also the meet-cute between Romeo and Juliet in the bathroom of the Capulet mansion, as “I’m Kissing You” by Des’ree is playing in the background—only to reveal that Des’ree herself is, in fact, singing at the big party in the other room. I still get goosebumps every time I think about it.

Other notable musical moments from the film come via the late Quindon Tarver, who as a choir boy sings soul-moving covers of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good).” Both renditions are included in the soundtrack, which went on to sell more than two million copies, earning double-platinum status.

Reception to the movie was mixed at the time. Roger Ebert wasn’t totally sold on the radical retelling, referring to it as “the mess that the new punk version of Romeo & Juliet makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy.” The late film critic gave it just two stars, calling both DiCaprio and Danes “talented and appealing young actors,” but who were, at least from his vantage point, “in over their heads.”

Despite critics being divided, the film grossed nearly $150 million worldwide and went on to defeat Titanic at the 1998 BAFTAs for best direction, original music, and production design. Considering the manner in which Titanic dominated pop culture discourse for the last few years of the ’90s, that’s a real achievement.

Few contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work have been as culturally resonant, likely because none has been able to capture the specific combination of star power, moving musicality, and visual intensity that Luhrmann achieved with Romeo + Juliet. One noteworthy mention is Maqbool, a 2003 Indian crime drama based on Macbeth, starring Irrfan Khan as the titular character. It didn’t receive nearly as much global recognition, but if you like seeing Shakespeare set in the modern world, it’s essential.

Perhaps what makes Romeo + Juliet as relevant as ever is its ability to be rooted in the tradition of the past while still making room for tomorrow and the way of the future, whatever that may be. That overwhelming sense of uncertainty that encompasses our youth—it never really goes away. Time morphing into something intangible and hard to measure seems to be the essence of adulthood—especially in our current climate.

I often feel disconnected from the now, because I cannot make sense of it. That’s how the characters in the film are portrayed, too, and their aimlessness feels like a kind of comforting kinship that I can revisit over and over again. In truth, Romeo + Juliet made Shakespeare as timeless as ever.

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