20 years ago this month a soundtrack was released that was so great music and film fans alike (i.e. me and my mates when we’re in the pub) would talk about it in hushed tones for years to follow. It would also make one particular music journalist dream of having a giant fishtank installed as a partition wall in her overpriced North East London flatshare whilst she made eyes at a stranger in a suit of armour to the sweet sounds of Des’ree. It was, to give it its full title ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: Music from the Motion Picture’ and for me it remains perhaps the peak of director Baz Luhrmann’s career (apologies to the Moulin Rouge man’s current Netflix show, the multi-million dollar hip-hop song-and-dance drama The Get Down).
Capturing the volatile, hormonal and highly randy vibe of the film itself, it’s also a perfect snapshot of where music was at in 1996, a peek at a post-Britpop landscape where it simply wasn’t enough to be perky and chirpy and sing about getting a bag of chips for lunch while wearing an Adidas tracksuit. Skipping through saucy goth-wave and storming industrial through to lovelorn Euro-indie and choir renditions of early 1990s rave tracks, the soundtrack was cast as an extra character in the movie, every bit as thrilling and enticing as Leonardo DiCaprio’s floppy-fringed Romeo and Claire Danes’ angelic Juliet. Naturally, I had the poster on my bedroom wall as a kid – and I may or may not have kissed Leo on the lips nightly before going to bed.
Two decades on, and a replaying of the soundtrack proves it’s just as potent as ever – and just as likely to make me think about getting off with promotional artwork. Opening with Garbage’s ‘#1 Crush’, the band’s sauciest ever song, the grunge-pop of Everclear’s ‘Local God’ and Butthole Surfers’ demonic ‘Whatever (I Had A Dream)’ are both as rowdy as each other, while the deeply atmospheric ‘Talk Show Host’ is still the only Radiohead song I actually like, a former b-side that was given a trip-hoppy remix treatment by composer of the film’s score, Nellee Hooper.
A trio of Swedish artists – The Cardigan’s with ‘Lovefool’, The Wannadies and ‘You and Me Song’ and Stina Nordenstam’s ‘Little Star’ provide the lighter, giddier moments on the soundtrack – as does the choral version of ‘Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)’ that plays when our titular lovers get hitched – but lets not forget that this is a film about two teenagers killing themselves in the name of love, so its understandable that the rest of the soundtrack is rather more moody. Many soundtracks have attempted such greatness since – we see you Jackie Brown, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Drive, but none have quite matched the glory of Romeo + Juliet yet.