It seems like this was one of the early MTV-style movies (or were there earlier ones?), but looking at it now, it has an incredible wealth of depth - of characters and detail, all perfectly balanced, in such a way as movies no longer know how to do.
Acting, direction, camera, sound - all stunning to behold. And what's more - all relegated to the skillful telling of the tale. That's what's been mostly lost as the venerable Hollywood of old transformed from supporter of filmmaking artists to profit-driven mega-business mavens who make no decision without consulting those oracles of modern mass entertainment - the almighty focus group, the infallible demographics study, the indispensable computer logarithm.
This page I discovered goes far toward explaining why the movie exudes brilliance, while it could have easily gone so wrong: Baz Luhrmann interview @ Peter Malone
Just a couple of nuggets:
"We don't know a lot about Shakespeare, but we do know he would make a `movie' movie. He was a player. We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England - and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer and a user of incredible devices and theatrical tricks to ultimately create something of meaning and convey a story. That was what we wanted to do."
"Hollywood! People have many wrong ideas about Hollywood: firstly, it's much worse than The Player, much more bizarre. In fact it's a community in the desert, made up of people from all over the world, the best people from all over the world.
Now, what normally happens with the internationals - and most players in Hollywood are internationals - is that they are hired with their producer and they pick up American teams. One of my non-negotiables is that I work with my team - we work together, we are a team, we are an environment. Since the success of Romeo and Juliet, I now have an unprecedented deal where working with my team is actually ensconced in the deal."
"You couldn't set it in the real world because it would then become a social exploration of Miami or LA or Sydney, whatever. So we decided to create a world. That world was created from meticulous research of the Elizabethan world. For example, a social reality for the Elizabethan world was that everyone carried a weapon. Then we found a way of interpreting that in the 20th century. There were schools of swordfighting; they became schools of gunfighting. Only gentlemen would carry weapons, not the poor."
"I mean, the truth is this: the one thing we know is we don't know much about Shakespeare, but he was sure as hell focused on box office and he is not displeased that he's packing the houses. I know! William Shakespeare was an actor in a company that was competing with another. All they cared about was packing the house. Who is worried that we put rock music in? Oh, here's the news - he put popular songs of the time in his shows because it was a good way of telling a story!"
"It is true we are intensely visual, and that intense visual language has to be freeing, not oppressing. We make pictures. Cinema is like opera, strangely. That's why cinema directors do a lot of opera and vice-versa, but not necessarily plays. They are the synthesis of the visual, the plastic, the written, the acted, the audible, the audio arts, synthesising all those things into one singular statement... but in the telling, the visual representation is a good 50% of that."
"We shot in Mexico and Mexico is very, very, very Catholic with Catholic iconography everywhere. The giant statue in the middle of the city, that is Mexico City, with Jesus' statue put in the middle of the city. That's an electronic addition. All the iconography was about the fact of the plot point that when you marry, it is in the eyes of God. Families can't pull the couple apart. So the slightly-on-the-edge priest says, `but actually, if you do get married, the families can't do anything about it; so it's a way of forcing them to stop running around killing each other'. It's a key plot point in the play. It's very weak dramatically. So you have to have the audience believe that no-one questions religion, no-one questions the existence of God or the power of Jesus Christ. So when Juliet says, `No, if thy love be honourable, thy purpose marriage', Romeo could not say, `Look, you don't have to get married to have sex'. There's no argument about the fact that they existed in a religious context in terms of their thinking and beliefs. So it turned out like an Italian/Mexican/South American location. I mean, when you're in Mexico, religion is absolutely wrapped up with politics."
Maybe I ought to stop posting excerpts and put the link up again, huh? Let the man tell it himself: Baz Luhrmann interview @ Peter Malone
Ok, I can't resist - one more for the road. Scenes from the movie were cut up and montaged together for this, but the song is from the sound track, and it all works together beautifully:
God, it's been so long since a movie commanded so much power and did it with so much style...