SoundTreks | William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet
William Shakespeare, a white playwright of some note, celebrated his quadricentennial on Saturday. This not only gives us yet another excuse to delve into the work of the oft-pored-over writer, but it also gives us all – finally – an organic excuse to use the word “quadricentennial” in casual conversation. It’s also a dandy reason to look into the immortal Bard’s best-known 1990s soundtrack record, the one for Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive 1996 Generation X romance William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.
We know, we know. SoundTreks often delves into the soundtrack records of the 1990s, and, trust us, we’re trying to do so sparingly. But, as iterated several times before, that decade was a golden age for soundtrack records, and even really horrid movies were often blessed with companion CDs that were not only better than their counterparts, but often sold better (we’ve looked at Space Jam, although 1998’s Godzilla and Dead Man on Campus are still in our future).
On to Romeo + Juliet, a movie that was divisive at the time, and whose soundtrack was so amazing it warranted a second volume. The film, in case you aren’t familiar with it, was a highly stylized rendition of Shakespeare’s play wherein Verona was re-imagined as a wild, modern, multi-culti, gang-filled Venice, CA, and wherein swords were guns. Shakespeare’s language was in left intact, but truncated. Claire Danes played Juliet, and Leonard DiCaprio played Romeo. The film was loaded with chintzy Catholic imagery. Some critics bristled at the liberties taken with the text, while some young people saw the style as giving the play new life. To this day, I, personally, am still divided. Maybe a look at the soundtrack will clear some things up.
Also, stay tuned for the surprise Prince tribute.
Track 1. “#1 Crush” – Garbage
The droning grunge of Garbage was, if looked at in the right way, one of the defining sounds of the decade, and Garbage themselves were one of the more talked-about bands of the ’90s grunge scene. It must also be recalled that Garbage performed one of the James Bond songs (and “The World is Not Enough” is pretty good). Garbage has always been stronger when they were messier and noisier; their ballads too often stooped into the anyone-could-do-that territory. “#1 Crush” has an intense, dark romance to it, which actually stood as a tonal counterpoint to the film’s dreamy loviness. The film itself doesn’t feel like a Garbage song. It feels like a disco song played over a Meatloaf song.
Track 2. “Local God” – Everclear
Those who have been following SoundTreks (and to both of you, I give thanks) will note that more energetic records tend to get more of a pass, while the slower, ballad-infused records get a cocked eyebrow and a screwed-up mouth. Seeing as Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is often seen as a romance (instead of the tragedy that it is), one would expect a pop rendition of the play to be nothing but breathless love songs. Thank goodness that an enterprising music supervisor thought to include this near-joyous Everclear song, which sounds partly like a ’90s radio hit, but also a bit like The Holy Modal Rounders’ “Boobs a Lot.”
Pop romance, as it was depicted in the media of the 1990s, was seen as something to be suspicious of. Love took a cynical turn in pop music, and in-song romances became co-dependent. This Everclear song is deeply infused with that refreshing cynicism. Again, it’s a counterpoint to the popular perception of the play.
Track 3. “Angel” – Gavin Friday
The first proper love ballad on this record, “Angel” is a trip-hop-lover’s dream. This sound was an aural movement spearheaded by people like Moby and his ilk. Gavin Friday’s “Angel” is a love song that drifts gently into the background, creating more of a general mood than any specific, intense romantic longing. On a record, or at a party, this sort of tune is great for merely talking over. In a movie, however, these sorts of songs are perfect, as they seem meant to embellish dialogue and accentuate a scene rather than stand apart.
Track 4. “Pretty Piece of Flesh” – One Inch Punch
One Inch Punch is pretty much gone today, having only operated long enough to have appeared on this soundtrack (their lifespan, according to Wikipedia, was 1995 to 1997). They released only one record, and one of their songs was also featured in the little-talked about 2004 German film The Edukators. This trippy industrial-ish track seems like an amalgam of the previous two. It’s partly a musical counterpoint to the romance of R+J, and partly a trippy mood piece. Overall, though, it’s more the latter. I would love to listen to One Inch Punch’s whole album sometime to see if they were gone too soon.
Track 5. “Kissing You (Love Theme from Romeo + Juliet)” – Des’ree
Aaaand to Hell with counterpoints. This was indeed the love theme for the movie, and was mixed with Hans Zimmer’s score to be repeated several times throughout the film. This was the one that was everywhere within the flick. I have included the orchestral version below, as heard on the second volume of the soundtrack, as it actually is a stronger piece of music. Des’ree is a talented singer, of course, but her love song is the least interesting track on the record. Ideally: A trip-hop remix of the below score to take its place.
Track 6. “Whatever (I Had a Dream)” – Butthole Surfers
Butthole Surfers formed in the early 1980s as a playful post-punk project (as you might intuit from their name), and eventually mutated into a grunge-ish play-punk ’90s band, striking mainstream success about 20 years ago. Butthole Surfers’ sound changed wildly over the years, likely thanks to various personnel changes, so listeners would be constantly treated to a good deal of variety. Which may explain why this song, another cynical anti-ballad, sounds a lot like Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand.”
Track 7. “Lovefool” – The Cardigans
I first heard The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” in 1996, and it hasn’t left me. It entered my ear, crawled up inside my brain, and slowly drove me insane, not unlike insanity-causing worms from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I love the song, but it’s been stalking my consciousness pretty much every day for the past 20 years. Indeed, it has become such an ingrained part of my thought processes, that it feels much older than it is; somehow I have memories of hearing “Lovefool” back in 1985. Go back far enough, and you’ll hear it during the Big Bang, wafting eerily from some unseen Divine jukebox.
Track 8. “Young Hearts Run Free” – Kym Mazelle
This is the first non-contemporary song on this record, although it is a modern cover. The original is a 1976 disco hit, originally sung by Candi Staton. This cover is so directly translated, however, I wonder why the music supervisors didn’t elect to include the original instead. So much of the Romeo + Juliet film took place at parties and dance balls that it makes sense that some straightforward dance should be evoked. I believe this is what was playing when we met Mercutio, who, in this version, was a flamboyant drag queen. It’s a cliché to mix disco and drag queens, but I’ll allow it.
Track 9. “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” – Quindon Tarver
Quindon Tarver occupies a very strange place in popular culture. He is best known for his contributions to this soundtrack, and his song is, itself, a cover of a 1991 song by Rozalla. This track was, as children of the 1990s well know, remixed and used as the backing vocals to a curiously popular hit speak-song about wearing sunscreen called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” It’s hard to get an anchor on the track. It’s almost like an Art of Noise track, cobbled together from other sources, but without the sense of fun. I’m not exactly sure how to feel about it.
Track 10. “To You I Bestow” – Mundy
Mundy is an Irish singer-songwriter who has been periodically plugging away in his native Isles to this very day, but who never made it big in America. You can hear the folk underneath this track, and I think that Mundy – and the music supervisors – would have had something more moving had they included a more stripped-down version. The distortion pedal wa-na-na-na-na-na guitars turn something moving into something a little too moody for its own good, evoking The Smiths’ “How Soon in Now?”
Track 11. “Talk Show Host” – Radiohead
Ah yes. Angst. Very good. Very good indeed. Radiohead gets you extra points.
Track 12. “Little Star” – Stina Nordenstam
The little-voiced Swedish chanteuse Stina Nordenstam has a great, great voice, and its genuine little-girl qualities lend a truthful air of intense romantic memory to her songs. Like Mundy, however, I think “Little Star” would have been stronger with less production. If it had been just Nordenstam and a guitar, this would be one of the more romantic tracks on the record, but free of any cloying sentimentality. The backing vocals and echoey sax solo, however, give the song a drifting, dreamy quality. You can’t close your hand around the song. Which may be intentional. Love is hard to hold.
Okay, okay, I like it.
Track 13. “You and Me Song” – The Wannadies
There was a miniature trend in the art of the ’90s soundtrack compilation (an art I have had an opportunity to study closely) of including obscure Scandinavian pop stars that never managed to make it big in the United States. Case in point: The Wannadies, a Swedish grunge band from the late 1980s that may only be known in this country for this loungey love song. The Wannadies did make it big in the UK, but eventually broke up in 2009.
Something I admire about all the love songs on this record: They are more evocative than they are emotional. They summon up the Summer you fell in love, but not the love itself. I admire that. It’s a way of eschewing sentimentality, while also acknowledging the tragedy of the Romeo & Juliet story.
Bonus Track. “When Doves Cry” – Quindon Tarver
This song was only featured on the second volume of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, but with the recent passing of His Royal Badness, I felt it appropriate to include here.
Quindon Tarver’s cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” is like a high-octane version of the original with remixed trip-hop flavoring slathered healthily all over it. It’s a love letter to Prince to be sure, and is a loving attempt to add modern sounds to a classic from 15 years before. The original remains peerless, and, in these sad days following Prince’s death, will certainly make a tear well up in the eyes of staunch music enthusiasts everywhere. This remix is no reinvention, and certainly no travesty, but is surely a respectful tribute.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
As a critic torn on the film, I appreciate the soundtrack far more. The film doesn’t quite evoke the poetry of Shakespeare, opting instead for a very, very ’90s interpretation. This is a valid approach, of course, but when dealing with Shakespeare, often the text can carry much more than any production. As for the music, the temptation was there all along: to make a record that was veritably dripping with romantic pancake syrup. The music supervisors, however, struck a different tone, allowing ambivalence and mood to enter the picture. For a film that is so notoriously over-the-top, it pleases me to report that the soundtrack record is actually subtle.
Not all the tracks are winners, and there were certainly ways to shore up weak spots in the hull, but this is from the perspective of 20 years in the future. At the time, it must have been more perfect. The record as a whole is very strong, and only feels mildly dated in 2016. It’s certainly held up better than the film, which is so aggressively of its time, modern kids may not understand its aesthetic.
I’d be eager to hear from Millennials on Romeo + Juliet. Is it good? Which version of the story do you prefer? Do you even still read Romeo & Juliet in school? At any rate, if you’ve never seen the 1968 film version, you’re missing out.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.