Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Art

A pounding, furious Shakespeare, a blizzard of passion, romance, rage. This is not youthful passion viewed through a polite filter of iambic pentameter. This is just youthful passion; savage, wild. Did Shakespeare himself intend this play to be this raw, one wonders? Or did Baz Luhrmann see something in this drama, this wild thing, that not even the Bard himself fully realized was there?

Shakespeare has been part of the canon for so long that we tend to treat him like grandma’s fragile antique china; if we handle him too roughly, we fear, he’ll break. Boy, is this wrong. Of all the authors who aren’t breakable, Shakespeare’s probably Number One. “We have to analyze him with delicate, careful, refined sensibilities,” we think, “or we’ll shatter his subtle– ” No. Shakesy is robust, rough, strong, bold. He’s not grandma’s delicate china dinner plates; he’s the bull rampaging in the china shop.

We also tend to be overawed by Shakespeare’s towering reputation, but that too is mistaken. If you let professors of Literature (no doubt inadvertently) make you afraid of Shakespeare, you’re mistakenly thinking Shakesy belongs to Literature professors. No, Shakespeare belongs to you and me. Everyone can understand his plots, which are about things like love, power-lust, jealousy, revenge, war, etc. They are things all human beings intuitively comprehend well enough to follow along, even those who have never been in a war or been in love, etc.

Baz Luhrmann saw all this in Romeo and Juliet and put it into his production of the movie. He perceived, or perhaps remembered, what’s it’s like to be madly in love at age 14, when you have no emotional control, when your skin has not yet been thickened up by the scar tissue we all inevitably accumulate with experience, when you are not experienced enough to have a “been here before” distance on love.

Shakespeare is not mannered, or rather, sometimes he is, but the manneredness is just a part of his style (sometimes). His substance is brutally, nakedly human. Baz Luhrmann saw that in Romeo and Juliet, and made sure it made it onto the film.

(The main genius here is Shakespeare, obviously, but Luhrmann is also a genius for seeing through the fog of reverence that surrounds Shakespeare and producing R&J the way it should be produced, as uncontrolled young love.)

For another good example of this, consider… Beethoven. “An evening of music!” you say. “How charming! I shall purchase tickets to be seated in the center of the seventh row. I look forward to tonight’s performance with pleasure! Perhaps some wine and cheese later!” BEWARE. Beethoven is not polite, and you are at a performance of the mighty Third Symphony. (Yes, I said Third. If you attend a performance of the famous Fifth, you know what to expect. If you go to hear the Third, you have no idea what’s about to happen to you.) Beethoven is about music that slams out of the orchestra and punches you in the face, hard. After you stagger to your feet, you spit out a couple of teeth, wipe the blood off your chin, and say, “Holy Shit, that music isn’t polite! It’s a force of fucking nature!” Welcome to the Beethoven club, noob. From the grave, Ludwig says, “You’re welcome.”

Why weren’t you expecting that? Because again, Beethoven is such a classic, he is so totally part of the canon, that you think he’s fragile, like your grandma’s china. Wrong. See, the thing is, some artists get to be in The Canon because they deserve to be. What did Beethoven see that let him compose music like that? For one thing, he saw that music is not supposed to be polite. Fuck the string quartet! Music is supposed to be expressive. And that means, among other things, that it’s supposed to get your attention. Boy, does Ol’ Ludwig know how to do that! Those opening notes… no, you can’t call them that… those opening blasts of the Third… You won’t just put your cell phone down; you’ll drop it to the floor in shock. And off you go.

Before you know it, you’re on the musical equivalent of a roller coaster, and not just any roller coaster either, but the Extraterrestrial Nuclear Chemical Warfare Superman Death Spiral. This is the one that doesn’t just have the usual pro forma sign saying, “People with heart conditions shouldn’t ride this ride.” It’s the one that actually has a history of lawsuits because of all the people who went into ventricular tachycardia while they were on it. And several virgins emerged from the end of the ride pregnant, somehow. Yeah, THAT roller coaster. (Why doesn’t the music world warn you about this one? I think it’s because it’s more fun for them when they don’t. They probably attend performances of the Third just to look at the expressions on the n00bs’ faces. [Note to self: I should totally do that.])

The point is, Ludwig had a definite vision of how music should be, and he gives it to you, hard.

That is how to do Art.