A wordy play about star-cross’d Italian lovers of the 16th century hardly sounds like promising fodder for modern media, but that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from returning to love’s most beloved couple. With music often serving as bait, they keep trying to make Shakespeare swing for contemporary audiences.

In tandem with a multi-platinum soundtrack album of up-to-the-minute music by the Cardigans, Garbage, and other artists, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO & JULIET (1996, FoxVideo, PG-13, priced for rental) scaled the box office trellis to surprising heights last year. Credit the marquee power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, since nothing else about director Baz Luhrmann’s inventive but waterlogged hodgepodge of guns, gangs, and blubbering adolescents, set in a sunny beachside metropolis, explains its appeal. The random snippets of style-spinning music and the drive-by cuts of the film’s visual vocabulary do little to clarify the Elizabethan syntax, spoken with wavering accents by a cast so colorfully dressed they could be the class of MTV High. (Danes’ giggles and trace of a Val Girl lilt are especially distracting.)

The attempt to propel a classic into the present tense is culturally commendable, but the freakish collision of old and new in this short-attention-span spoon feeder amounts to a plague on both houses: The ultrahip style grates, and the text seems more antiquated than ever. Worst of all, the young actors’ overemoting leaves the poetry sounding callow and forced.

Luhrmann’s exertions might have worked better in a remake of the already modernized WEST SIDE STORY (1961, MGM/UA, unrated, $19.98), though he could hardly have topped it. Codirectors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, armed with indelible but tradition-bound songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (with the latter’s lyrics sanitized a bit from the original 1957 Broadway musical), replaced Verona’s Romeo and Juliet with Manhattan’s Tony and Maria, teens whose love affair is doomed not by feuding families but by rival street gangs. With its concrete-jungle setting and stirring rebuke of prejudice against Puerto Rican immigrants, this stunningly imaginative adaptation brought new resonance to Shakespeare’s venerable tale.

Filmed a few years before Beatles-era rock & roll definitively drop-kicked the Tin Pan Alley tone of ballads like ”Tonight,” ”Maria,” and ”A Place for Us” into prehistory, West Side Story won the Best Picture Oscar (and nine others); its soundtrack album spent 54 weeks atop Billboard‘s chart, far longer than any other ’60s LP. Now available in a vividly bright video edition, the film has its quirks: camera effects like the soft-focus trick used when Tony and Maria first spot each other, obviously dubbed singing, and, save for Rita Moreno, a paucity of Latino actors. Even covered in light brown makeup, however, Natalie Wood glows as the doomed borinqueña who dares to love a Polish-American boy (Richard Beymer).

West Side Story, of course, wasn’t the only ’60s flick to pack audiences into balconies by way of the Bard. Director Franco Zeffirelli reinvigorated Shakespeare without rewrites in his gorgeous, shot-in-Italy ROMEO AND JULIET (1968, Paramount, PG, $19.95; available in wide-screen and regular formats). Embraced by audiences during the least nostalgic decade of the century, this decorous production brought Shakespeare’s rapture of first love to timeless life — and death — with achingly sensitive performances in a voluptuous period re-creation.

Though he was aiming mainly at a generation devoted to its own counterculture, Zeffirelli didn’t pander any further than to throw in a few shaggy haircuts. Most noticeably out of synch with the ’60s, future Godfather composer Nino Rota’s orchestral score waxed so mainstream that Henry Mancini had a huge instrumental hit with its theme, unseating the Beatles’ ”Get Back” from the top-single perch in 1969. In fact, the film’s sole tangible debt to its era was its largely English cast: Winsome teen stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting looked like they could have come straight from a Carnaby Street modeling assignment with Twiggy. An eternally appealing pair of innocents, they’re among the best reasons to forsake Hollywood’s latest, hit-propelled vision of the doomed lovers and pop in some golden oldies instead. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: C-; West Side Story: A; Romeo and Juliet: A+

Romeo and Juliet
  • Movie
  • 138 minutes