Though flamboyant Aussie director Baz Luhrmann is now best known for "reviving" the movie-musical with Moulin Rouge (does no one remember the equally successful Evita?), it's 1996's Romeo + Juliet that can be called his true masterpiece. It is, in fact, the quintessential marker of a generation. It paired '90s pop-culture icons as the titular couple (Leonardo DiCaprio, who would go on to be immortalized in Titanic a year later, and Claire Danes, hot off the cult TV phenomenon My So-Called Life), and mixed rapid-fire MTV-style editing with edgy pop music to lure a new generation into the world of Shakespeare. The result is, as even Luhrmann admits, "rambunctious," yet five years later the film's relevance is stronger than ever. Luhrmann's update of the timeless tale of forbidden love resonates with the angst of a post-Cobain generation armed to the teeth. DiCaprio's Romeo is the quintessential brooding antihero (one part Cobain, one part James Dean) while Danes's Juliet is the sheltered damsel with a delicate fury all her own. The script's preserved Elizabethan language is at first hard to swallow amid towering skyscrapers and pill-popping gangs (see the film's opening sequence, a spaghetti western-style gas station brawl), but is decoded via clever branding (guns are named "Longsword") and the actors' guileless interpretations. Similarly, the story's subtext is rendered on buildings and billboards as well as in television advertisements, newscasts and fashions. Purists may scoff, but the film is faithful to the Bard and its makers are thoroughly cognizant of the story's many intricate layers. Perhaps the caliber of Luhrmann's rendition of Shakespeare's classic can be measured by the extent to which one clings to hope that the couple isn't really doomed.
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Romeo + Juliet is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1). While the film has been available on widescreen VHS for several years, this updated version of Shakespeare's tale of forbidden love is now clearer than ever on DVD. Skin tones vary in certain moments, specifically in the final chapel death scenes, but this is likely due to continuity or lighting inconsistencies. Otherwise, the film's colors are bright but never garish. The film's exquisite score, composed by Nellee Hooper, Marius DeVries and Craig Armstrong, remains crisp and dynamic.
The Special Edition of Romeo + Juliet includes a brand new commentary by Luhrmann, co-writer Craig Pearce, director of photography Don McAlpine, and production designer Catherine Martin. The group spends much time discovering and pointing out inconsistencies in the film but they also detail the arduous nature of creating each sequence. The DVD's mini-features include detailed descriptions of costume and production design (the magnificent Capulet mansion), props (character guns and the code of morality in the story's gunplay), vibrant storyboards and rehearsal footage. (Note: Much of the film's magic is lost once set creation and camera and lighting tricks are revealed.) Most notable are a Luhrmann-style mini-documentary on the short-term media impact of the film and a low-budget video starring Leonardo DiCaprio that was used to woo studio heads into funding such a daring project. Interviews with the costume designer and choreographer are all-too-brief while cast interviews seem altogether unrevealing. The disc includes music videos for Des'ree's "Kissing You" and Kym Mazelle's "Young Hearts Run Free" but the soundtrack's bigger hits (the Cardigans's "Lovefool" and Garbage's "#1 Crush") are unfortunately nowhere to be found.
This Special Edition DVD will be priceless to Luhrmann fans while viewers just discovering the director's madness, thanks to the success of Moulin Rouge, will not only discover the enchanting Romeo + Juliet but a huge selection of extra features as well. May it play in high school English classes forever.