Bard act to follow: why Romeo + Juliet is still the ultimate film soundtrack

As Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespeare adaptation turns 20, its alt-pop score remains a teen touchstone that few modern soundtracks can match

On 29 October, it will be 20 years since the soundtrack to Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out. A little-known anniversary, perhaps, but if you’re aged between 28 and 38 years old, this is the pulse-quickening stuff of nostalgia. It was the post-grunge-era backdrop to fantasies about Leonardo DiCaprio in chainmail or, later, weddings (anyone who hasn’t been to a reception where the Wannadies’ You And Me Song was the first dance was clearly too drunk to remember it). Garbage, the Cardigans, Radiohead, Butthole Surfers: the bands it featured were as 90s as a choker necklace and nailed young angst in a way that few have managed since.

The album was the brainchild of elusive former Massive Attack producer Nellee Hooper – who Luhrmann approached after he heard his work on Björk’s Venus As A Boy – alongside composers Craig Armstrong and Marius de Vries. The music they assembled is evocative not just of horny teens rutting under foliage but of a shift in music: gloomy alt-rock was on the way out; optimism, Girl Power and high-gloss pop were ushered in. Hooper’s trip-hop tied these disparate sounds together.

“Nellee’s always been a great cultural curator,” says Justin Warfield, whose band One Inch Punch got on the album after meeting Hooper through friends in London. “We were going out to clubs and then back to his for an afterparty. The songs that ended up on the soundtrack were being beta-tested in the living room at 5am. When I saw the movie, I was like: ‘This is the sound of that summer in London.’”

It’s strange to think of a film set in Verona Beach as reminiscent of London but that’s not the only thing that’s unexpected about the way the soundtrack was made. Luhrmann insisted that he heard the lyrics upfront, says Warfield, and tapped up artists personally to write for the film. One such artist was Des’ree: the first few notes of her Kissing You can make adult hearts flutter at the thought of Leo and Claire Danes’s eyes meeting through a fish tank. “I was terrified when Baz asked me to write the love theme,” she says, though it’s clearly stood the test of time: “People tell me all the time that they walked up the aisle to it.”

Everclear (from left): Greg Eklund, Art Alexakis and Craig Montoya.
Everclear (from left): Greg Eklund, Art Alexakis and Craig Montoya. Photograph: Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images

Do soundtracks pack the same emotional heft these days? It’s fair to say that in 20 years no one will walking up the aisle to Rick Ross and Skrillex’s Purple Lamborghini from the Suicide Squad OST. “Now soundtracks are more of a marketing concept,” explains Warfield of how increasingly calculated they appear. “They’re doing it from a totally different standpoint – like, ‘If I get this band or this collaboration, it’ll totally move the needle for getting butts in seats to see the movie. We can cross-market it.’” Everclear’s Art Alexakis – who wrote Local God for the soundtrack – agrees. “It’s like, what band is hot, let’s put them on it,” he says. “Some of the songs were created [especially] for [the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack], it’s a creative film and that’s why it connected with you. People who are just looking at the numbers just don’t get that.”

The way that Romeo + Juliet was put together sounds antiquated by comparison. Warfield and Alexakis reveal how the original songs written for the film took direct inspiration from key lines in Shakespeare’s original text, selected by Luhrmann. Both Warfield and Alexakis saw an early edits of scenes from the film to inspire them, just as a composer scores a film. Alexakis adds that no one thought about commercial success when Romeo + Juliet’s soundtrack was put together, because the music was an integral part of the film. The album went triple-platinum in the US but its crossover appeal came as something of a surprise. “I was like, this is a soundtrack song, it [won’t] get played on the radio. But Everclear went to Australia on tour, and I remember the head of EMI Australia asking, ‘Why isn’t Local God on your setlist? It’s been a massive hit here!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, we’d better learn it then.’”

Des’ree reaches for an imaginary slice of toast.
Des’ree reaches for an imaginary slice of toast. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA

Perhaps Romeo + Juliet resonates because, as Des’ree says, its eclecticism “keeps it fresh”. Maybe it’s because the process was collaborative. More likely it’s because it’s a time capsule of teen emotions distilled into one album and, like the best soundtracks, its songs are forever intertwined with the romantic imagery. It’s a curated playlist before Spotify commercialised them. It’s the mixtape you dreamt of getting from a crush but never did.

“It’s still one of my favourite soundtracks,” says Alexakis, “I played it for my eldest daughter when she was a teenager, and I do the same thing with my daughter now.”

Contributor

Issy Sampson

The GuardianTramp

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