Have you ever had that feeling like you are working in a laser-focused way on something for years and then you come up for air and see something that is exactly what you are working towards if you started much earlier, spent thousands of more hours going more deeply into what you are doing in the most genius and lucky version of yourself ? I watched Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo & Juliet again a couple weeks ago and I cried my eyes out. My tears were not over the star-crossed lovers. They were not over the fact that the first time I saw it a few years ago happened to be the same day my boyfriend died (long story). My tears were over Baz Luhrmann & his visual interpretations of Shakespeare and how much I wished it was my film. Fuck, I wish it was my film.
This scene which introduces the dynamic between Juliet, Nurse, and Lady Capulet bring so much humor to the text. The choreography and costumes of the scene – The pill-popping Lady Capulet dressing as Cleopatra, the sped up motion of the film and quick edits, the absurd use of space and movement, the delivery of the lines (“speak briefly”) coupled with Claire Danes’ reaction shots at her ridiculous mother. And Paris cast as Paul Rudd on the cover of Time Magazine! This is one of the most delightful adaptations of any text I could imagine.
Similarly, Luhrmann takes familiar scenes like Romeo and Juliet’s love at first site (top) and places a fish tank between them. It’s beautiful filmmaking. Symbolic and simple. The surfaces and lighting and the looking into create a prism of circumstance in a simple frame.
Water is also used in the balcony scene (below) – symbolically, they fall into the water that separates them. This is probably one of the most famous scenes of any play in history and where I feel other directors have shrunk in the shadow of Shakespeare’s genius with productions that are either over the top and disconnected or flat, pandering and stagnant, Luhrmann is unafraid to meet his collaboration with Shakespeare with his own genius. He brings a shape and texture to the essence of Shakespeare’s words– a 3 -dimensional body for them to live in. He leads with filmmaking: set design, costuming and casting decisions that mean something. He takes great liberties with stage directions and makes astute cuts to the text and carves out something that I would argue is more faithful to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet than a production I saw at Stratford Upon Avon or the 1968 version Directed by Franco Zeffirelli – both of which would be considered “faithful” and both I loved just to see the play on its feet. But there is more creativity involved with being faithful than just doing things as they are written.
This first kiss scene (below) is really euphoric and hilarious and the visual gag of Paris played by Paul Rudd dressed as an astronaut and Lady Capulet as Cleopatra keep giving in this scene. And some good movie kissing!
A lot of artists attempt to combine elements of classical work with modern work. Baz Luhrmann is one of the best. Just look at the decisions he makes — Paul Rudd as Paris. There was no way for anyone to know in 1994 or 1995 when this was probably cast that Paul Rudd would end up being one of the clowns of our time. Just as there was no way for anyone to know that Leonardo DiCaprio would have staying power and be the Romeo of our time. And Claire Danes! And then there is the decision to use Radiohead’s Talk Show Host as Romeo’s theme song. Radiohead had yet to become what they are, which in my opinion is the defining sound of our time. Talk Show Host is an extended cut off The Bends, which at the time was practically undiscovered by mainstream audiences and critics. There was no way to know OK Computer was coming and that the sound of Radiohead would embody the primal electro-caveman struggle for our time.
Talk Show Host speaks to Romeo’s “love devouring-death” with door-breaking love & doom. Which works because a great deal of Romeo’s lines not only flirt with love but equally flirt with doom. And it has the lustiest baseline around. Here’s some lyrics from Talk Show Host:You want me? Fuckin’ well, come and find me. I’ll be waitin’ With a gun and a pack of sandwiches… You want me? Well, come and break the door down. You want me? Fuckin’ come and break the door down.
Another great decision – A children’s church choir singing Prince’s When Doves Cry — uggg, Baz you’re killing me. What is left for the rest of us to do?
The only criticism I have is that Juliet doesn’t have a theme song. And I don’t mean that in a feminist way. It’s just that it feels slightly more like Romeo’s movie because he has a re-occurring theme song – like it’s his Verona. So I have taken the liberty of selecting either I Miss You or Oh So Quiet by Bjork as Juliet’s theme song. Bjork being the only possible match to Radiohead.
Matching lyrics to the emotional state of a fictional character has been an obsessive habit of mine for a long time. I responded to books in essays that were accompanied by song playlists for my teachers – a soundtrack to my reading assignments in school. In my essays I would talk about the journey of the characters and the songs I chose for them in their journey.
That brings me to Moulin Rouge, which I saw for the first time last year. And I’ve pretty much listened to the Elephant Medley (two lovers who speak to each other in pop song lyrics) every morning since to torment myself with my love for the film and my self-hatred for not being far enough into my work to be producing at this level.
This year Baz Luhrmann is releasing The Great Gatsby. The soundtrack is produced by Jay Z! He explains –
“Fitzgerald was a pioneer, famed and controversial for using the then-new and explosive sound called jazz in his novels and short stories-not just as decoration, but to actively tell story using the immediacy of pop culture. He coined the phrase `the Jazz Age.` So, the question for me in approaching Gatsby was how to elicit from our audience the same level of excitement and pop-cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience? And in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”
I alternate between being frustrated with myself for not doing it first and going out of my mind with anticipation. The problem is: I still have so much to learn – Yes, I’ve come up with this idea– but no, I can’t execute the way Baz Luhrumann can. No one can. Crush (and crushed).
two months later:
Just saw Luhrmann’s Gatsby and it was not good. None of the elements came together. Especially the soundtrack. No good scenes. I can’t even fix the film in my head. I don’t know what could have made it better. It was just bad. I blame myself for wanting it so much. Rethinking everything….