This article was originally published in 2016 for Romeo + Juliet 20th anniversary.
In early 2016, during a live broadcast of Glenn O’Brien’s interview show Beatrice tea, for which the esteemed editor was interviewing Baz Luhrmann, O’Brien asked the director, “How do you go about making an unworkable deal?” Although Luhrmann’s films have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, there is something incredulous about each of them. Executive producer of his first feature film, Ballroom strictly, died suddenly during production – casting the spell of the 1992 romantic comedy on the competitive world of ballroom dancing in perilous uncertainty (Luhrmann later received a phone call from Cannes telling him he had only one day to decide if he wanted to create the film at the festival). For Red Mill!, his bohemian cabaret set in the 19th century, Luhrmann secured the rights to iconic songs by David Bowie, Dolly Parton and Elton John by cold calling artist teams.
But Luhrmann’s most “impractical” chord; the greatest “how did this movie actually go” moment? His two-hour, action-packed, star-studded blockbuster in which the only words spoken are Elizabethan English: Romeo + Juliet. The 1996 sensation more than succeeded in its goals of reshaping Shakespeare for the MTV generation. He grossed $ 147.5 million recording sonnets for Radiohead and Garbage, and outfitting Montagues and Capulet at Prada and D&G.
There have been many very popular adaptations of Shakespeare’s tale of Cursed Lovers, from West Side Story To Musical High School. However, these hit riffs never keep their “yours” and “you”. Luhrmann, who developed his lavish dramatic style while working in theater and opera, does not dream of backing down from the original language of the bard, but seeks to build a unique universe in which he will live again. According to the film’s production notes, Luhrmann calls this a “created world” – a self-contained space rooted in a pastiche of iconic images from religion, technology, folklore and pop culture. This created world “gave decorator Catherine Martin and costume designer Kym Barrett incredible aesthetic leeway, but their creations have always been firmly attached to the words, to the story of Shakespeare.” This is because, according to Martin, Romeo and Juliet’s Verona was also a product of Shakespeare’s imagination: in which Shakespeare placed his play was a created world himself. “
Screenshot via Youtube
Romeo + JulietThe hyper-colorful world created by Verona Beach is a cross between Venice Beach, Miami and Mexico City, where most of the film was shot. The created world is partly anchored in the aesthetic and cultural traditions of these regions. The decrepit carnival rides recall the turbulent history of Venice Beach; in the 1950s, as in this film, the once flourishing tourist hub became a petri dish for gang activity. Martin made phenomenal use of Mexican religious folk art in its lush, romantic settings (and won an Oscar for artistic direction in the process). However, the world created by Luhrmann not only defines the physical space occupied by his characters. They too are anchored in this pastiche of icons – from the way they act to the way they dress. Named Luhrmann The Godfather, the heightened reality of Fellini’s films, and Tennessee Williams’ stern southern beauties as influences on the mentalities and choices of his characters. Although the boys Montague and Capulet inherited the feud from their parents, these sparring children share a common rebellious cause: to challenge the older generation. So how do you create a link between the two households while maintaining their distinct identities? And how to tie this young rebellion to the created world? Fashion.
When Luhrmann described this generational divide, he did it with designers. The old Montaigu and Capulets, he said, “have more of the 1960s-70s-Yves-St.-Laurent-Jackie-O. Watching about them, while the younger generation has rejected that.” This rejection takes two distinct forms: For the Capulet clique – led by John Leguizamo as Tybalt the Prince of Cats, it meant sleek, sexy and tailored looks thanks to Dolce & Gabbana’s now defunct D&G broadcast line. The Capulets mainly favor black clothing with clean silhouettes, but are dripping with decorative embellishments: they’ve adapted their gun cases into high-fashion accessories and wear their shirts tucked in to show off their daring belt buckles. One of them even has a grille with “SIN” engraved on it.
Although the Montague Boys belong to the same comfortable social class as the Capulet clan, their outfit is much more simple and utilitarian: unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts, loose pants and shorts inspired by work clothes, combat boots or Chuck Taylors. âWith the Montague Boys, it’s kind of a Vietnamese feeling,â costumer Barrett explained, citing the end of the war in the mid-1970s, âwhen soldiers wore Hawaiian shirts and shorts and native hats. They invented their own way of wearing clothes, adapted to the climate and the environment. ” While the Montagues don’t have quilted velor bulletproof vests like the Capulets, this rag team isn’t without their own unique ornate decorating code (yell at Mercutio at the Capulet party, which looks stepping out of an Ashish parade). They don’t need bling, their Hawaiian shirts are quite vibrant; they don’t slick their hair back to show off their handcrafted cases, they dye it pink and prick it. The factions are distinct, but both wear their rebellious attitudes on their sleeves through clothing that connects to the created world they share.
The rebellion to this rebellion: Romeo and Juliet themselves. Although she hails from Maison Capulet, you don’t see Claire Danes in a sheer black feather dress (or, sadly, that rhinestone-studded “tomato potato” bodice from the D&G 1992 collection); just like you don’t see baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio with pastel pink frosted tips in a giant pair of firefighter red dickies, like he’s heading to a No Doubt concert after his shootout. Barrett instead made their clothes, “the simplest of all, very clean lines, not embellished at all.” And to do this, she went to Prada.
In the years since this film’s release, Miuccia Prada has designed collections of blackish Hawaiian shirts, rampant color clashes, and punk embellishments. But in the mid-1990s – when Miuccia was starting to turn her family’s leather goods brand into a ready-to-wear empire – it was her “clean, understated lines” that drew Barrett, and the rest of the world, to. the subtle elegance of the brand. Not having launched men’s fashion until 1993 (but already calling on young actors for its campaigns), Prada created Romeo’s just enough square navy blue wedding suit, complete with a crisp cotton shirt and a long tie. pink flowers, a tribute to his Montague heritage. Juliette’s looks are equally subtle, simple, and down-to-earth – even her angel costume at the Capulet Ball. Luhrmann chose the Danes on the basis of My so called life, but Barrett took off Angela Chase’s flannels and sweaters, leaving Juliet, in a scene where she waits for the nurse to talk about Romeo, with just a white t-shirt and jeans.
Youthful rebellion takes many fashionable forms in this film, but every style choice stems from the world Luhrmann created (much like how some designers create a world for their clothes on the runway). The minimalist cocktail of custom Prada, Vietnam-meets-mall-rat, and ultra-sexy D&G doesn’t seem likely outside of Luhrmann’s imagination, just as scoring Shakespeare for Butthole Surfers and The Cardigans also seems like a disaster. Yet those choices are precisely what makes her adaptation so unique and enduring, and what other directors should consider when approaching such adaptations. I’m not an Arthur Miller fan, but if anyone remakes The crucible with Vetements, you bet I’d buy a ticket.