25 Years Ago, “Romeo + Juliet” Gave Me My First Brush with Shakespeare

1996 was a big year for me. I was thirteen in middle school and my English teacher introduced me and my classmates to the work of William Shakespeare. Although we spent the year working on a project that explored the various works from the playwright, we were primarily focused on “Romeo & Juliet.” We spent most of the year reading the play in class and before the school year let up, my teacher staged her contemporary version of “Romeo & Juliet” for the school that everyone took part in. It was called “Ronnie & Julie.” I loved art but was way too shy to act, so naturally I was in the poster department.

That fall, about a few weeks before our large scale play/musical, the teacher took us to see “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” to get a feel for the general vision of the famed play. Suffice to say I was obsessed with the story (and Shakespeare) for a very long time. 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” is a movie that I’ve grown to appreciate more and more over the years. Its purpose was to remold the Shakespeare story for the nineties, and lo and behold, they did a damn good job of it. It didn’t just compel me, but I fondly remember my entire class watching in sheer silent awe.

We all left the theater raving about the movie and for a long time I had a tough time getting over it. Conveniently enough it was a peek in to the star status of Leonardo DiCaprio, who’d gain instant international fame with his starring role in “Titanic” two years later. In the nineties, there was a huge resurgence of William Shakespeare in popular culture. From his pseudo-biopic winning Oscars in the end of the decade, studios were dead set on offering modern, bold takes on everything from “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “Othello,” right down to “Hamlet.”

“Romeo + Juliet” was Baz Luhrmann’s (also a few years away from his award winning “Moulin Rouge”) own lavish vision of the tale of two star crossed lovers, opting for a very stylish and gaudy vision that often felt like a hazy dream. It was MTV, Guy Ritchie, and nineties edge all rolled in to one big, entertaining amalgam. Luhrmann directs a large cast that includes Claire Danes as Juliet, John Leguizamo as the vengeful Tybalt, and features stellar performers like Harold Perrineau, Brian Dennehy, and Miriam Margoyles, respectively.

Although the movie is a contemporary take on the narrative, Luhrmann doesn’t shy away from the period aesthetic. He opts for impressive set pieces and sticks to the classic stage play’s dialogue, even maintaining Shakespeare’s trademark iambic pentameter. He also add tiny modern flourishes like replacing the use of swords with guns, and relying very heavily on contemporary music to convey what remains unsaid by a lot of the characters. And say what you want, but the use of a television reporter (Edwina Moore) to open and close the story with the classic monologue of “Juliet and her Romeo” is a great way to maintain the film’s contemporary vision while also paying tribute to the dramatic entrances of exits of this gut wrenching story.

DiCaprio and Danes have a wonderful chemistry together as two kids from warring families that find their passion for one another difficult to deny. It makes a lot of sense for two of the bigger stars of the nineties to be paired up on screen, as DiCaprio was on the cusp of becoming a titan of film. Meanwhile Dane’s expressed a lot of sorrow and idealism of Juliet with her cult show “My So Called Life.” You could call their casting something of a stunt as the movie taps in to two hot properties of the decade, but the pair of performers hit home runs with their respective roles.

Luhrmann and writer Craig Pearce truncate much of the nuance of “Romeo and Juliet” for the two hour format and brisk pacing, but they’re true to the promise of a bold re-imagining. It works, even when it stumbles in certain places. Even without the rose colored nostalgia, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” offers something different and ballsy; plus I appreciate how it turned me on to reading and writing.

There have been so many adaptations of “Romeo & Juliet” (I’m very fond of Franco Zefferelli’s version from 1968) over the years, but Baz Luhrmann’s own stands out among the ilk as a flawed but sharp classic with titles like “China Girl” and “West Side Story.”

And it gave us “Lovefool.” I love “Lovefool.”

“Ronnie & Julie” ended up sucking, by the way.