I vividly remember sitting in a theater 20 years ago as the moody strains of Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” played over peak teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio’s first appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Backlit by a fiery sunset, DiCaprio scrawls poetic thoughts in a bound journal, until he steps up to show his full height while walking away. At 11 years old, I knew I’d never feel love quite like I did for Leonardo DiCaprio in that moment.
Luhrmann’s 1996 now classic modernization of the Shakespeare play about two star-crossed lovers from warring families was treading new territory at the time—a completely manic, modern version of Shakespeare that directly catered to teens. Roger Ebert called the whole film “a very bad idea,” but 20 years later, it seems clear that Romeo + Juliet was just something he couldn’t wrap his head around. The film started the teen Shakespeare adaptation swell, made stars of DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and Luhrmann, and taught an entire generation the romantic capabilities of the aquarium. Last and certainly not least—it also produced one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time.
While Luhrmann’s gritty, manic imagery and the swoon-worthy romance between “#1 Crush” DiCaprio and the ethereal Danes kept audiences in rapt attention, it’s Romeo + Juliet’s soundtrack that makes the movie memorable. The musical cues are responsible for making so many scenes feel iconic, like when Des’ree’s “Kissing You” and its sultry, aching lilt plays as Romeo and Juliet see one another for the first time through a neon aquarium. Or when Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio, high on ecstasy, sublimely dances to “Young Hearts Run Free” by Kim Mazelle. Those indelible moments translated to a soundtrack that had serious commercial success: Vol. 1 hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, went five times platinum in Australia, and spawned a number of hit singles, including eternal earworm “Lovefool” by The Cardigans. And Vol. 1 was so successful that Capitol Records doubled down with a Vol. 2, which included the score of the film spliced with dialogue.
Creating the perfect soundtrack wasn’t an easy task for producer/composer Marius De Vries, who more recently worked on the upcoming La La Land. Especially because he had never done anything like it. He and producer/composer Nellee Hooper were coming off a number of projects, including producing Massive Attack’s second album and Bjork’s first two solo projects, when Luhrmann reached out to them. “I wouldn’t say anyone was confident of the outcome until afterwards,” says De Vries. Despite inexperience, Baz, who was being recommended more seasoned composers by the movie studio, was determined to land De Vries and Hooper. They were the guys for this very specific job. “Baz is someone who likes to pre-visualize his projects, so he had a very vivid and tangible universe in place in his imagination, on paper and on the screen, way before the cameras rolled," says De Vries. “Using this material he was able to explain to us that this was a modern day telling of Shakespeare with a sort of contemporary MTV-conscious cultural dimension to it, but using the original text. I think you have to remember what an extraordinarily unlikely idea that was at the time.”
Luhrmann’s strong vision for the film, coupled with Hooper’s instincts, proved to be the perfect recipe. “One of Nellee's great strengths is his innate cultural compass,” De Vries says. “I can think of no one better than him to mastermind a compilation of songs for this movie that would be both adventurous and appropriate.”
Putting together the music wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, of course. De Vries remembers a few times that he and Hooper butted heads with Luhrmann. And they couldn’t always get the songs they planned for. De Vries wouldn’t name names, but said that “one of them was a Police song which eventually got replaced with The Wannadies in the sequence” where Romeo heads to the church to speak to Friar Laurence after the iconic pool makeout scene. But the tastes of the men, coupled with the experience of another composer, Craig Armstrong, who had dabbled in music for film more than De Vries and Hooper, helped create a cohesive piece of art that enhanced Luhrmann’s direction in the film and stood well on its own.
And that’s where producer Andy Bradfield came in—he focused mostly on Vol. 2 after the film itself had already been shot. Working on the music for the film was an incredibly fun but intense process, he said. “One thing that Baz did extremely well—and Marius and Craig and Nellee as well—they created a musical identity for that movie, which was of its time but has endured really well. It was Shakespeare done with a modern twist—that is a difficult thing to pull off. I think they were able to because it has a very particular look and feel, and a very particular sound as well.”
A shining example of that is the scene centered around a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” led by a young Quindon Tarver when Friar Laurence agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet and DiCaprio’s Romeo gets so excited he trips and slides across the floor. While the scene itself turned out flawlessly, getting Tarver’s cover onto the soundtrack itself proved a bit more difficult. De Vries and Bradfield echo the same story about the scene. "The problem with that one,” De Vries explains, “was that Quindon Tarver had a beautiful, choir boy, soprano voice when we recorded the original, but for some insane reason we didn't record the whole song then and there. So, three years passed and we came back to complete the song for the soundtrack—and Quindon walked in and he was six feet tall and three feet wide—and his voice was two octaves lower. We had a very head-scratching moment at that point to figure out how to make the full length version for the LP.”
While neither knows the exact origins of getting Prince’s permission for using “When Doves Cry,” he guesses that "Baz went to have a cup of tea with him. Then the music clearance people came to work with us and we were given permission to use it.”
Both De Vries and Bradfield have the fondest memories of their work on the film and the soundtrack itself. “I think the one that's really unquestionably historic is the end credit song, Radiohead’s "Exit Music (For a Film)”—which ended up on their album OK Computer. It's such a privilege and an honor that they would agree to write something especially for the movie—and it's without a doubt one of the most amazing end title songs ever.” They’re also not immune from the nostalgia the soundtrack inspires, even though they dedicated years to creating it. “It just makes me slightly nostalgic for those days 20 years ago when soundtracks were not only financially but artistically far more a vital part of the process of filmmaking.” Bradfield points to another reason why the soundtrack feels iconic: it’s instantly recognizable. “If you hear those songs together, immediately you know what it is. No question.”
Romeo + Juliet gave us a clear, unfettered audio vision that encapsulates the torment of being a teenager from unrequited crushes (Garbage’s “#1 Crush”) the snotty entitlement of being young (Everclear’s “Local God”) and utter romantic devotion (Mundy’s “To You I Bestow”). It’s a piece of art that you can listen to hundreds, upon hundreds of times and it never ages even though you certainly aren’t 11 anymore and not still eternally bound to Leonardo DiCaprio.