William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (Music Edition) Review
The skyscrapers of the city of Verona are dominated by billboards for the families of the Montagues and Capulets, whose ambitions are matched only by their hatred for one another. When a shootout at a petrol station ends in a civil brawl that threatens to leave the city burning and the heirs of its two great families at the end of the other's Sword 9mm handguns, Benvolio Montague (Dash Mihok) and Tybalt Capulet, Prince of Cats (John Leguizamo) standing amidst the wreckage aiming at one another's hearts while police helicopters circle overhead. Out of this chaos come Romeo Montague (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet Capulet (Claire Danes), two young lovers who fall for one another at a party within the home of Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino). But such a love cannot bloom when fate and the loathing of their families for one another conspire against them and amidst bloodshed, violence and a plague on both their houses, Romeo and Juliet await their moment to be as one.
It is fitting that this film has been released in an edition that celebrates the music in the film and the arrangement of the soundtrack. Although it does feel as though, what with this being the film's fourth release on Region 2, that everything else has been covered in previous versions of the film and that only now is it the turn of the film's score, that being the very thing that holds the film together, that is finally allowed its moment in the spotlight. It isn't that the actual soundtrack, being the one available on CD, is a particularly good one. It has its moments, as it does with Stina Nordenstam (Little Star), Radiohead (Talk Show Host), The Wannadies (You And Me) and The Cardigans (Lovefool) but that it is so integral a part of the experience that William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, to give the film its full title, would be a lesser experience without it. And it is that score that one remembers most, in particular how well it fits the film and how, were it not for Gavin Friday, The Butthole Surfers and composers Nellee Hooper, Craig Armstrong and Marius De Vries, one wouldn't be at all impressed by MTV-meets-Shakespeare logic of its making.
The opening twenty minutes are what this film ought to be remembered for, a glimpse into a Verona of Central America that offers us the entire tale of Romeo & Juliet via a news flash and then once again with the more sombre tones of Pete Postlethwaite, who acts both as narrator and as Friar Laurence. Thereafter, it's the choral O Verona and a statue of Jesus Christ gazing down on the SWAT teams, urban riots, shootouts and newspapers announcing yet another conflict between the families of the Montagues and Capulets, whose heads are seen reaching for their Daggers and Longswords as the city burns around them. Into Verona come the Montague Boys to faux-Beastie Boys hip-hop, where they come face to face with Tybalt Capulet at a petrol station, who arrives to a Morricone-inspired collage of guitars, whistles and church organ. As nuns bustle around them and kids fire pretend handguns, the station explodes and days of riots only end with Captain Escalus Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) ordering them to surrender their weapons from a police helicopter. Meanwhile, Romeo sits mournfully on a beach to the sound of Radiohead and Juliet, within the grounds of the Capulet mansion, prepares herself for the party that night to the swooning romance of Gavin Friday's Angel. Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) is between them both, dressed in a silver bikini, holding party invites and hallucinogens and dancing to Young Hearts Run Free.
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is a joy to watch and listen to. Regardless of what's happening in the story, Baz Luhrmann ensures that there is always something beautiful to look at or to listen to, which is useful as the one thing William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is bloody awful at is its treatment of the story. Luhrmann is let down by his cast, who certainly look the part but fall short of the standard set by Pete Postlethwaite in the part of Friar Laurence. Perhaps it's that we've come to hear Romeo & Juliet played by a capable cast but as much as John Leguizamo is memorable as Tybalt, it's not for his reading of the lines. Equally, Harold Perrineau does everything one could ask of Luhrmann's take on Mercutio except project his character through dialogue. And Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, decent actors both, don't have a good deal to do, with Danes', "Romeo! Oh Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" being the very lowest point in a film chock full of them. The main fault, to my untrained eye, seems to be the haste with which the actors rush through their lines with their most accomplished moments being those of quiet contemplation. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet becomes, in time, a time that needs an innate knowledge of the story to appreciate as well as the stunning music and visuals to carry the story forward.
But that's enough. I can't remember if I've ever really followed the story through the dialogue but it's certainly straightforward enough via the visual and musical cues that Luhrmann drops into his film. He has the screen bleed with action, Shakespearean graffiti, visual gags and a riot of colour, neon and violence. His soundtrack cues O Fortuna, industrial rock, swooning romance and cheap pop. And it was a film that actually made something of the pop cultural references that MTV had spent more than a decade building. It doesn't tell the story of Romeo and Juliet any better than did China Girl but it looked like a two hour music video - a good thing! - sounded like two different films playing at once and would lead Luhrmann down the road that would lead to Jim Broadbent singing Nirvana. No matter that John Leguizamo struggles with Shakespeare, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is worth it for that alone.
This appears to have been sourced from the same print as the Special Edition in that it's almost in perfect condition with a very slight softness that hides the joins in the editing of the film, which rarely slips below rapid. However, the age of the film shows up the quality of the visual effects, notably the thunderstorm that rolls in following the death of Mercutio, but the aim of the film is true and the DVD transfer is a good one, flattering the film's good points while doing enough to disguise its failings. One advantage that this Music Edition has over previous releases of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is the inclusion of a DTS soundtrack, which is a fair improvement over the default DD5.1. Both sound good but the DTS is much richer, has a greater clarity and has much more presence in the audio stage.
Music Machine: A common feature to music-themed DVD releases, this is a chapter search by another name, linking the selections on the menu to the moments in the film when the songs appear on the soundtrack. Not everything is included here but all the obvious selections, including Stina Nordenstam, The Wannadies, Radiohead and the piece of music that opens the film, O Verona.
Commentaries: There are three included on this disc, one each from Baz Luhrmann, Orchestrator and Composer Craig Armstrong and Music Programmer and Composer Marius DeVries. Most of all, it is clear that the three contributors ought to have been recorded as one as all three leave a copious amount of gaps in what they have contributed to this release of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Given the nature of this release, these three commentaries are all concerned with the music and though Baz Luhrmann does tend to cross over into the look of the film, the decision to use the original text and the casting of the actors, he does focus on the soundtrack. In spite of the gaps in the contributions, each one offers an insight into how the soundtrack was constructed and how, in particular, themes in the choice of songs were then reflected in character motifs and how O Verona, which was written for this film, is now being chosen in favour of O Fortuna when a film demands a vibrant piece of choral music. All of these commentaries are subtitled.
Romeo + Juliet: The Music (47m06s): Using clips from the film to illustrate his point, Baz Luhrmann features in his documentary on the making of his film and how he persuaded Fox to alter their methods for his, in financial terms, little $10m movie. Craig Armstrong and Marius DeVries are also on hand - Nellee Hooper doesn't do interviews - with the whole thing describing in no small amount of detail how the score was constructed and, via a simultaneous release with the film, would go on to sell 8m copies. There are a few too many executives in this and not enough Luhrmann but it's a decent enough feature.
The London Music Mix featurette (4m02s): This short features describes the mixing of the soundtrack outside of the Hollywood mixing suites and, instead and very much to a chorus of disapproving executives from Capitol, in a rundown studio in London. Marius DeVries describes the mixing of the soundtrack and how it was eventually prepared for a commercial release.
Journeys of The Song: There are three such features included here, one each for Young Hearts Run Free (2m10s), Everybody’s Free (1m34s) and Temp Music (1m54s), all of which go through the buying in of the music, the dressing of the set and the on-the-set rehearsals.
Finally, all of these bonus features are subtitled in English.
The most important question, though, is whether it's worth buying this version of the film. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was released on a bare-bones disc early in the format's life, finally making it to a Special Edition around the time of the release of Moulin Rouge. Since then, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet has been released in a two-film set with Moulin Rouge, with Strictly Ballroom in a Red Curtain Trilogy set and then with a couple of other DiCaprio films in a three-disc set. No matter how thorough the completist, by the time of this Music Edition, the shelves must be groaning with copies of this film. For the casual buyer, it's more the question of why anyone ought to pay £10 or thereabouts when the Special Edition, which is the superior of the two, is now listed at less than a fiver online. The choice is, of course, the consumer's but the Special Edition was more than enough before this release and remains so even now.