Baz Luhrmann has used a vast array of media techniques to attract a modern audience to his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The opening of the film features a 20th century television news report. Luhrmann has chosen to cast a black American female newsreader, contradicting our expectations of a white English cast throughout. We get a very different cast from the one we would predict; Romeo and Juliet are white, as we would have thought, but with American accents. There are some surprising choices from the casting department. Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, is black and acts like a typical 20th century young black male. The casting of the Capulet gang is interesting; they are all Hispanic in appearance and unpleasant in character. Tybalt in particular is named as ‘the prince of cats’ and has an overpowering air about him. Tybalt’s role appears to have been paired with that of Benvolio, as they are the most prominent members of their families. The Montague’s are all cast as distinctly white Americans; this diversity in casting seems to reflect our modern multicultural society.Order now
The Montague boys are relaxed in appearance; they wear Hawaiian shirts and act like foolish young men. The Capulets are slicker, controlled and Tybalt especially has a toned physique. We are not given the names of the other two young Montagues or the third Capulet. They are obviously not key characters in the film so naming them seems unnecessary.
Once the newsreader has introduced the story by reading the original prologue, we are further introduced to the film. The reason a news report is used is that this is a media familiar to any audience and it highlights the serious side of an essentially entertaining film. The news is well known as factual and serious.
From an unremarkable opening we are taken to an increasingly sped up montage of clips from the film. The most dramatic are selected and packed into this short burst to illustrate how the film is to take shape. This is also a visual representation of the prologue; useful to those who find it difficult to get to grips with being thrown straight into Shakespeare’s language.
The following conflict between Capulet and Montague takes place at a fuel station alongside a busy highway. This first scene brings us immediately into the bitter feud between families; the music and actions of the two gangs parallel a western film. Baz Luhrmann has taken advantage of his young media-savvy audience by using a style and techniques they will be aware of. Tybalt’s persistent fighting with the Montagues is much like the typical ‘pistols at dawn’ scenario you find in most westerns. The heavily classical guitar-based music that features at Tybalt’s entrance also brings this western sparring tension to the scene. Music plays an essential part in the film, it seems to make time pass faster and adds much suspense to the film. Watched without the music the film appears much longer and far less dramatic.
To set the scene in such a busy urban area brings more attention to their violence; highlighting how central the feud is to Verona. The Capulets are clearly geared up to fight. They appear to have been well trained with muscular physiques and great skill in the handling of weaponry. They dress like gangsters, with their sly appearance. The expensive looking suits turn back to reveal either tight tops featuring religious images or shirts. Their formal dress gives them an air of suave sophistication, which the Montagues lack. The Montagues are far too casual to match up to the dangerous image presented by the Capulets. They wear Hawaiian shirts, one even unbuttoned to reveal bare chest. They have more rebellious styles of hair; pink, shaved and bleached. Luhrmann uses the images of the families to make one appear submissive and docile while the other is unscrupulous and aggressive. The Capulet’s have quite clearly been portrayed as the ‘baddies’ of the story.
There are changes in music constantly throughout the introduction and opening scene. The two families have different styles of music given to them. The introductory music is heavy and dramatic: a range of notes sung repeatedly in an operatic tone by a choir. The choir is accompanied by an ostinato from violins. The violins heighten the tragic choral music. This music is used to build up tension, the singing creeps back before leading to the next bit of music. The next is heavy drum and bass, in a modern, hip-hop style. This highlights the street culture of the Montagues when they are depicted ‘cruising’ in their car.
Once the Montagues arrive at the fuel station, Luhrmann creates a more relaxed atmosphere by cutting the music, pending the Capulet’s arrival. The music sounds suspended, like we are waiting for someone to make a move. This music comprises classical western guitar and panpipes. When Tybalt appears on the scene, the tone of these instruments changes; the guitar takes on an evil air and the pipes sound hollower.
At the outset of the fight a trumpet is introduced, which brings a Mexican feel to the scene, conjuring up images of dusty streets and sombreros. This seems to add to the western theme. During combat the Capulets utilise swift, highly skilled moves. They jump, land and fire their pistols with ease. At the end of it all Tybalt maintains an aggressive stance, looking magnificent with not a hair out of place. In their smart, formal dress you would not have expected the Capulets to be able to move with the agility and speed that they do. But to Tybalt in particular, clothing seems to make no difference.
In comparison, the Montagues fighting moves are weak. To begin with, the Montagues are far more unprepared and afraid to join the battle. They have been taunted by the Capulets, whose appearances have intimidated them into reluctant fear. During the fray there is no actual physical contact between the two sides. Their only violence is their pistols. The sides appear to be fighting over who remains at the fuel station. This seems to suddenly represent possession of Verona; the side that is forced to leave the fuel station will be the losers of the battle. The Capulets therefore take the fact that they remain, as a sign of victory. Tybalt takes his parting shot at the fleeing Montagues before standing, triumphantly flicking a match at the pool of petrol surrounding Benvolio. The final and most determined Montague departs, signalling the end of the fight.
At last, as the fuel station bursts into flames, the music from the introduction returns, creeping back with a crescendo on the violins. This indicates that a dramatic event has taken place. Another major change to the conventional ideas of Romeo and Juliet is the length of the film. Though the language sticks to Shakespeare’s original wording, chunks of text are cut out where they are seen as unnecessary or surplus to the plot. Had every word been included in the film, it would have been far longer and could risk boring the audience. Luhrmann has succeeded in producing a popular and successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s timeless play. He has managed to attract a younger audience, boosting box office sales.