High school English students will either rue or worship this date. 20 years ago today, Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ was unleashed on the world. Both critically acclaimed and derided, it skyrocketed the careers of its two leads, and put Luhrmann well and truly on the international map.
Before 1996, Leonardo DiCaprio was known almost exclusively for playing the title character’s mentally-challenged brother in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’. Following the release of ‘R+J’, DiCaprio was cast in ‘Titanic’, ‘The Beach,’ ‘The Aviator’... you get the drift. By 1996 Claire Danes already had a developing career, but her role as Juliet was her major breakthrough. While she hasn’t enjoyed the meteoric rise of DiCaprio, she’s still a household name and might not have been had she never played Juliet.
'ROMEO + JULIET' TRAILER
But the real star of ‘Romeo + Juliet’ was Luhrmann. In 1992, Luhrmann wrote and directed ‘Strictly Ballroom’ which is still one of the best Australian films ever made. ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is the earliest entry on Luhrmann’s résumé. A critical darling, it got Baz noticed enough to start on his Shakespeare adaptation that English students love/hate. After ‘R+J’, Luhrmann directed ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Australia’ with Nicole Kidman, and in 2013, reunited with DiCaprio to direct another adaptation: ‘The Great Gatsby’. Every one of these films drip with Luhrmann’s distinctively lavish and bombastic style. It’s a style DiCaprio is particularly suited to.
‘Romeo + Juliet’ redefined the Shakespearean adaptation. Transplanting the story into a modern world had been done before, and there are dozens of traditional versions. Luhrmann combined both in a way that made it both accessible and still faithful. Keeping the original dialogue and interactions, while also translating the material into something modern teenagers can understand, Luhrmann managed make Shakespeare cool again.
What Luhrmann did was something that combined both in a way that made it both accessible and still faithful.
You could certainly argue that Luhrmann’s work inspired 1999's ’10 Things I Hate About You’ (The Taming of the Shrew), 2006's ‘She’s the Man’ (Twelfth Night’) and even Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ among others.
Set amongst the backdrop of gang warfare, ‘Romeo + Juliet’ goes a long way to explaining the concepts behind Shakespeare’s play that were difficult to grasp for younger, sheltered readers. This is one reason why it became an English teacher’s dream. There’s so much in this film that enhances not only an understanding of classical works, but of modern language - Shakespeare penned dozens of phrases we still use today, and hearing them spoken in a context such as this is one of the best educational tools you could find. I wonder how many thank you cards Luhrmann still gets from grateful teachers?
Luhrmann’s adaptation entered the pop-culture lexicon and endures there still. Three big players in the film industry owe their success to the quality of this film. In celebration, why not dig out your copy? Just steel yourself for classroom flashbacks.