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Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet Ruined My Life

Photo: Rex
There is only one film that I’ve ever gone to see twice at the cinema. I suspected I’d like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet because I was always interested in what Claire Danes was up to as I basically thought I was Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, and I was enough of a Just Seventeen reader to know that this new guy, Leonardo DiCaprio, was pretty cute.

But I couldn’t prepare myself for the obsession that would begin with the line, “Two households, both alike in dignity.” Never mind “civil hands”, after that first shot of Leo as Romeo, smoking a cigarette, the sunset falling on his flaxen hair, it was my young mind that was “unclean”.

The film was a two-pronged attack on my wild hormones: a proper introduction to the prettiest male face I had ever laid eyes on, and a devastatingly romantic story that even eclipsed that of Scott and Charlene's. It was a lot to take in at 13.

By the time Luhrmann’s punk retelling rolled into my small town’s Odeon in 1996, I had already read about the outrage. Instead of tights and swords, the Montagues would wear Hawaiian shirts and carry guns (still to this day a man in a Hawaiian shirt will always get a second glance from me.) The action would be transferred from Verona to ‘Verona Beach’. The families became rival gangs. Purists wept like, well, Juliet on her death bed (oops, spoiler!)

When I recently messaged a few female friends (all now in their 20s and early 30s) and asked what they had loved about the film, the responses came thick and fast. “My understanding of romance is based on their first kiss in the elevator.” Another replied, “I wore my videotape out on that fish tank scene.” One actually said, “Lol, I’m listening to “Kissing You” right now!”

Readers, let's take a moment:
And my pal isn’t wrong to still enjoy that soundtrack. It was a glorious mix of camp tunes (“Young Hearts Run Free”), heartbreakers (“Kissing You”) and top notch indie (Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host”).

Such was my infatuation that I not only bought the soundtrack's first volume on CD but I also paid another £15.99 (jeez, music was expensive back then) for volume two, even though it mainly consisted of a few crappy instrumentals. Hats off to Capitol Records who were smart enough to know that teenage girls this lust-filled would part with their pocket money for any piece of official merchandise, even if it was basically an orchestral score.

The aesthetic of the religious iconography was also spellbinding. As someone who had shunned organised religion for most of my life, I suddenly found myself on the hunt for Virgin Mary statues and crucifixes, which was pretty difficult on a high street that mainly consisted of Woolworths and The Body Shop.
I also longed for my parents to be at war with another family so I could fall in love with their son. But the closest thing to an enemy we actually had was whoever was occasionally putting their rubbish in our bin.

Now would be the time to share a picture of my failed attempt one Halloween at Juliet’s angel costume (we've all been there, right?) but fortunately it was before social media so there's no evidence of me going trick or treating in some white wings from Claire’s Accessories.

This technicolour story of high stakes and passion simply didn't translate into my grey suburban life, no matter how much I willed it to (funny, that). Even when I shut my eyes at the local fireworks display and pretended I was at a glamorous party, I was still just on a school sports field holding a jacket potato.

And the film gave young girls such a skewed introduction to romance. After you'd seen Romeo woo Juliet with lines like, "Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow," then having one of the local boys ask you, "Do you, like, wanna go out with me?" before mauling you by a halfpipe in the park fell a bit flat. It goes without saying that they did not "kiss by the book."
Speaking to another friend, she said that as a teenage girl she felt a physical ache knowing that she would never touch the object of her affection (that's Leo, if that's not already clear.) Years later, when Twilight came out, the chaos made no sense to me until I realised that it was simply their R+J, and I smiled and nodded knowingly at them like Juliet's wise, old nurse.

It might seem a bit inappropriate to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth (many happy returns, big guy!) by ogling over a garish retelling of his work that he might, quite frankly, have been appalled by. But, at the very least, it got an entire age group into the Bard.

For some, Romeo and Juliet will forever mean Franco Zeffirelli. For others, it might be Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld. But for a certain generation, the greatest love story ever told will always be Leo and Claire kissing underwater in a swimming pool. For never was a story of more woe…