I Will Never Get Tired of Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET

Vanessa Diaz

Managing Editor

Book Riot Managing Editor Vanessa Diaz is a writer and former bookseller from San Diego, CA whose Spanish is even faster than her English. When not reading or writing, she enjoys dreaming up travel itineraries and drinking entirely too much tea. She is a regular co-host on the All the Books podcast who especially loves mysteries, gothic lit, mythology/folklore, and all things witchy. Vanessa can be found on Instagram at @BuenosDiazSD or taking pictures of pretty trees in Portland, OR, where she now resides.

On a Book Riot Podcast episode about love story adaptations out today, I got to gush for a moment about one of my favorite subjects: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I shared how, in my youth, I dressed up as Claire Danes’ Juliet for Halloween several years in a row, from the white dress, angel wings, and halo braid to colored contacts (acquired very much not from a doctor) that actually hurt like hell to wear.

The movie came out in 1996, and I remember it being on my radar mostly because of My So-Called Life, a short-lived teen drama starring Jared Leto, A.J. Langer, Wilson Cruz, and Claire Danes. A surprising number of people told me I looked like Claire Danes back then for reasons that only make sense if “you look like her” means “you both have eyeballs and skin.” That very loose connection to Danes and a general curiosity about this famous love story, as I understood it, was enough to make me curious about the film. 

I was only 12 and hadn’t yet read Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t know it was one of the tragedies, what the hell iambic pentameter was, or that “wherefore” means “why.” But from the opening scene, where a news broadcast on a small television announced the fate of these star-crossed lovers, I got it. Every layer of the film — the cast, the setting, the music, the delivery of the (mostly) original text — made sense to me. And it cracked my heart wide open. 

It is a tragic story and not a romance, yes, but I find Luhrmann’s treatment of the love story so irresistible with all of its ’90s vibes and painful beauty. So, this Valentine’s Day, I’m taking you on a tour through some of my favorite moments from the film. Because it’s hard to pick a favorite, I’ve gone in order of appearance. 

#1. Biting Thumbs and Kissing Swords

The Montague boys roll up in a yellow pickup truck with a body kit, the Capulets in what looks like a blue Monte Carlo. The Montagues are rocking unbuttoned floral-print shirts over bare chests while the Latino-coded Capulets wear zippered vests with Catholic iconography paired with gun holsters, slacks, and Cuban heel boots. A pink-haired Jamie Kennedy as Sampson doth bites his thumb at Vincent Laresca’s Abra, and boom, a brawl that ends in gunshots and flames commences. The crown jewel of this scene is Tybalt dropping to his knees, ripping off his jacket, and unholstering his sword (that’s really a gun called a sword) to kiss it slowly before taking aim at his target. So dramatic. 

#2. Mercutio, Mab, and Molly

You know the scene. It might be the scene: Harrold Perrineau as Mercutio delivering the Queen Mab monologue, an entreaty to Romeo to deal less in dreams, forget about fair Rosaline, pop some molly, and hit these streets for a Capulet costume ball. He does this all in a curly white wig, heels, a mini skirt, and a bustier that would make Selena Quintanilla proud. Moments later, Perrineau delivers an enthusiastic dance number on a grand staircase to Kym Mazelle’s version of “Young Hearts Run Free.” Perrineau is perfection in the entire film, but this scene takes the cake. 

Romeo and Juliet exchange some “Can you believe this guy?” smiles when Paul Rudd as Paris, dressed as an astronaut, does this fancy little hand flourish, like a single jazz hand while he sort of cha-chas in place to a beat only he can hear.

#3. A Boy, A Girl, and a Fish Tank

I have a weird thing with fish tanks because of this movie. Romeo, dressed in chainmail, is trying to shake off that molly by dunking his head in a bathroom sink, and as he comes up for air, all dripping and teen heartthrob-like, we hear the first notes of Des’Ree’s “Kissing You.” Leo walks over to the giant aquarium wall and is gazing at the fish when he sees Juliet’s eye peeking through some coral. They straighten in surprise and exchange shy smiles, then bigger smiles, then Romeo endearingly bumps his nose against the glass as though he’s forgotten it was there. It’s a wordless scene and just so damn tender, capturing that young crush feeling in those few short moments. Have I met my soulmate at an aquarium? No. But there’s still time. 

#4. Paris Doing Jazz Hands

Right after the fish tank scene, Juliet dressed as an angel, is whisked away by her nurse at her mother’s request to join Paris for a dance. Romeo looks on longingly while Juliet and Paris dance to the quiet bridge of “Kissing You.” Romeo and Juliet exchange some “Can you believe this guy?” smiles when Paul Rudd as Paris, dressed as an astronaut, does this fancy little hand flourish, like a single jazz hand while he sort of cha-chas in place to a beat only he can hear. Rudd plays Paris as such an earnest dork, and I’m here for it. 

#5. Benvolio Tries to Be Down 

The morning after he and Juliet have declared their love in a swimming pool, Romeo meets up with Mercutio and the Montague boys at the beach dressed in the Montague floral shirt uniform. As Benvolio, played by Dash Mihok, goes to greet his boy, he calls out, “Rome-EY-oh!” in a way that cracks me up every. single. time. He wanted to be down soooo bad. 

Danes’ doe-eyed, lovestruck monologue as she awaits her Romeo is so sweet and blissfully ignorant of all that’s to come. She’s sitting on her bed, knees pulled up to her chest, smiling like a lady with marital consummation in her future.

#6. A Plague on Both Your Houses

Luhrmann nails Mercutio’s death scene in so many ways: the brewing storm, the abandoned theater, Perrineau’s perfect delivery from “ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch” to his final condemnation of both houses. In this scene and the one that follows where Romeo hunts Tybalt down in a car chase before shooting him in front of that giant Jesus statue, everyone is acting their faces off. I felt Mercutio’s betrayal, Tybalt’s anger, Romeo’s white-hot rage. I still get chills every time I watch this part of the film. 

#7. I Have Bought the Mansion of a Love But Not Possessed It 

So you know about my Juliet costume, but my obsession didn’t stop there. I forgot until recently that I went all in on the Juliet aesthetic, collecting a shit ton of angel figurines and placing them all over my bedroom to model Juliet’s room in the movie. I even insisted the invitations to my quinceańera be on cherub-print paper because it reminded me of Juliet. Angel aesthetic aside, Danes’ doe-eyed, lovestruck monologue as she awaits her Romeo is so sweet and blissfully ignorant of all that’s to come. She’s sitting on her bed, knees pulled up to her chest, smiling like a lady with marital consummation in her future. Claire is so fresh-faced and eager in this scene. Sweet summer child! 

#8. The Mad Dash to Lie with Thee Tonight

First, we get Leo choked by tears, defying the stars at the news that his lady love lies in the Capulet tomb. From the second he decides he’s going to join her there, the song “Escape from Mantua” ratchets up the pace (shoutout to the real ones who bought both versions of the soundtrack to get the entire score). The song starts slow, then builds up to a thumpy techno beat mixed with some dramatic choral sequences as Romeo leaves Mantua for Verona, dodging bullets the second he’s within city limits en route to procure the drugs that will do him in before breaking into the church where Juliet lies. It’s such a good, tense, is-he-gonna-make-it, and such a stark juxtaposition to what comes next. 

#9. The Ugly Cry to End All Ugly Cries

By the end of this movie, I am almost always crying. Romeo shuts the doors to the church, and the frenetic energy of the preceding scene is replaced by an eerie, unsettling quiet. It soon gives way to a haunting and ominous chant as Romeo begins the long walk down the church aisle, lined with an explosion of neon crosses and giant candelabras. As he approaches Juliet, strings swell and hit a fever pitch as Romeo is unmade. That last “eyes look your last” is so heartbreaking, and if you’re anything like me, you’re screaming at this point, begging Leo/Romeo to feel the flutter of Juliet’s fingertips as she stirs. Alas, he takes the poison, and with a kiss, he dies. This is where we get Claire Dane’s burst of an ugly cry, one I admit to making fun of in the past. Seeing it again recently, I was struck by its sincerity, if for no other reason than because I’m crying right along with her. The cry is as ugly as the circumstances. 

#10. The Soundtrack

This is cheating because it’s not one moment, but it helps make many moments. This soundtrack is gold. There’s, of course, “Lovefool” by the Cardigans, and Garbage’s ode to obsessive love, “#1 Crush.” There’s “Young Hearts Run Free” and “Kissing You.” But then there’s the fitting “Local God” by Everclear when Romeo pulls up to the beach on some “yeah, I’m that guy” energy. There’s the bright, buoyant vibe of “You and Me Song” by The Wannadies when Romeo leaves the pool and makes his giddy way to Father Lawrence, and Quinton Tarver’s take on Prince’s “When Doves Cry” at the end of that same visit. The score is, well, theatrical, infusing drama in one scene and a certain sweetness in another without ever feeling disjointed. If you haven’t paid close attention to the music before, go watch the movie right now. Let it happen to you. Enjoy.

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