My Favorite Soundtrack: 'Romeo + Juliet'
Baz Luhrmann's marriage of pop with the classical triumphantly soundtracked the greatest love story of all time.
Long before I discovered aggressive rap music, I fell in love with the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of Romeo + Juliet, and spent my evenings tonguing a laminated poster of Leo. On paper, Shakespeare meets a bunch of faux-Los Angeles rich kids sounds like the worst shit in the world. But in practice, Romeo + Juliet displayed a deft smushing together of pop culture with the classical, that Luhrmann has struggled to replicate in later efforts (pls don't talk to me about The Great Gatsby). Nowhere was this more impressive than with the film's soundtrack: a meld of 90s pop nuggets and an orchestral score, composed by producer Nellee Hooper, Craig Armstrong, and Marius de Vries, which includes pieces that, to this day, are used to make men weep during soccer montages.
Upon its release in 1996, the world creamed its pants over both the contemporary soundtrack and the score, the original OST release reaching triple platinum in the States and critics ladling on the praise, in-between crying at Claire Danes playing dead. It was so loved, in fact, that fans were treated to a tenth anniversary re-release with bonus tracks in 2007.
Even the very first scene still has the ability to get me riled up and flexing in the mirror...
"Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene"
[CRASH ZOOMS, HELICOPTER SHOTS, THE MOST HYPE CHOIR ARRANGEMENT PUNCHING YOU IN THE FACE.]
I first watched this during an English lesson and vividly remember being jolted out of my carefully maintained LOL-school-is-shit slouch, thinking, "Maybe I won't die cringing at DiCaprio speaking in oldy-worldy English?"
The contemporary soundtrack alone covered the full gamut of emotions; Garbage's "#1 Crush" had me wanting to swig vodka out the bottle and tell my parents I hate them and Butthole Surfers "Whatever" is a sex-after-an-industrial-amount-of-Valium anthem. The Wannadies' "You And Me Song" made me wishing someone loved me enough to skip hand-in-hand through a meadow with and "The Montague Boys," with One Inch Punch's Justin Warfield, was in a league of its own for music to look hard and slow-mo walk to.
One of my favorite pop moments in the film, however, came with disco heart string tugger "Young Hearts Run Free." Lighting up the fancy dress ball, it set the benchmark for Luhrmann's unpapologetic flamboyancy, which movie-goers first tasted in Strictly Ballroom. Like, don't ask why a bearded Mercutio is jacked up on ecstasy and stomping around in drag miming to Kym Mazelle—just go with it.
Then, of course, is the OBVIOUSLY GREAT MOMENT IS OBVIOUS with Scandi heroes The Cardigan's sugar sweet "Lovefool," a perfect accompaniment to Romeo and Juliet's doe-eyed flirting. I remember this being perpetually on MTV and never getting bored of it, I also never noticed how break-your-ankles-and-handcuff-you-to-my-radiator-so-you-never-leave-me the lyrics were because Nina Persson's breathy vocals were so beguiling. Who remembers the European version of the video too? The fuck was that about?
Where the orchestral score came alive, for me, was with my two fave characters. With Tybalt's Theme, John Leguizamo's strutting around in Cuban heels and drenched in Catholic kitsch was tempered with a ton of Mariachi-esque horns and marching drums, that somehow still managed to keep Tybalt menacing, yet camp as fuck. In contrast, Mercutio's death, y'know, the game changer of the whole story, was graced with a piece of music that rocketed from brooding to "OMG THEY MURDERED MERCUTIO" so powerfully it changed the entire mood of the film. Getting choked up right now thinking of little Leo's face screaming into the thunderclouds...
"A plague on BOTH YOUR HOOOUSES!"
Though not included on the original release of the sountrack, Gospel singer, Quindon Tarver, was immortalized as a baby-faced church crooner with a cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry," which somehow ended up being even more ostentatious than the original. Tarver also vocaled a re-release of Luhrmann's life-affirming spoken word hit "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)." Again, it's a track that in theory sounds toe-curlingly embarrassing, but in reality if it catches me during a particularly unrelenting comedown can reduce me to tears.
Last, and certainly not least, is the triumphant "Kissing You." Does anyone find openly sobbing to this cathartic, or is it just me? Anyway, in a movie score so expertly put together, you've got to have belter of a song to soundtrack the film's most poignant moments. The disarmingly simple piano of "Kissing You" allowed Des'ree's effortless vocals to take center stage, the emotional impact of which immediately kills all memory of those elevator music tracks she farted out. Gratifying in its simplicity, it is the ballad to end all ballads, by the time the string section really kicked in I was hysterical. Which is handy, as what better way is there to soundtrack the greatest love story of all time?
Jo's on Twitter. Follow her - @FUERTESKNIGHT