13 life lessons halsey took from baz luhrmann's romeo + juliet
Ft. relationship advice, the godly importance of rap and why imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Still from Halsey's Alone, via Youtube
“I watched it every single day for a year. Every single day. Did not go one day without watching it. Had three copies of the DVD, had it on my phone, bought it on iTunes. If I had, like, a 30-minute Uber ride, I would at least watch 30 minutes of it.” Halsey’s lounging on a sofa in a hard-to-find hotel in east London, stilettos kicked off, remarkably effervescent for someone who’s just hopped off about three flights from a land far, far away. She’s also knee-deep in extolling a university-worthy seminar on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Halsey (an anagram of her given-name, Ashley) loves Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Her obsession was born from an apocalyptic break-up, one she self-medicated in the appropriate way -- by locking herself in a room with vast quantities of sugar and films. It was then that she stumbled back across Romeo + Juliet. “Everything about the way he shot the film -- the fire and flames, the fireworks, the chaos, the violence, the colours, the calamity -- all of that was how I was feeling internally.” So she did as any 20-something wanting to churn out some fan fiction on their idol probably couldn’t do at all -- she got Baz on the blower. “We met up and had, like, a three-and-half-hour brunch. We just talked about everything.” The hardest part was that spending the first hour-and-a-half of the conversation figuring out how to say to him, “Hey, I want to make a record about your movie. Can I do that?’”
"The video for her latest single is heavy on the Luhrmann aesthetic: a highly saturated explosion of neon crosses, sequins and coy glances across a debaucherous party."
She did that. Last year’s hopeless fountain kingdom is about as conceptual as albums get. It begins with her quoting the Shakespearean tragedy’s opening verses word-for-word, before launching into an album that reinterprets the tale. On its release, she sent R&J quotes to fans in the post and set up fake Twitter accounts for her Romeo (Solis) and Juliet (Luna). The video for her latest single, Alone, which dropped last week and features Stefflon Don and Big Sean, is heavy on the Luhrmann aesthetic: a highly saturated explosion of neon crosses, sequins and coy glances across a debaucherous party.
Concept albums are kind of Halsey’s thing. Her debut EP, Room 93, was about a couple in a hotel room. Her first album, Badlands, was set in a fictional dystopian world called The Badlands. Somewhere between that album and hopeless, she catapulted to the heady heights of commercial success with a little ditty called Closer, a collaboration with a band that have become akin to a swear word in muso circles, The Chainsmokers. But hey, say whatever you want about the C-word’s mutant EDM-esque offspring, Closer is a pure pop sugar rush and it topped the Billboard charts for 12 weeks straight.
To be honest though, you get the sense Halsey doesn’t really give a fuck what you think about her. She comes across as incredibly self-assured, eloquent and vehement in her beliefs. She’s politically engaged and aware, whether that’s campaigning for gun control or recounting her experience of sexual assault at the Women’s March. She’s openly bipolar and bisexual. She rattles off notes on intersectional feminism, reproductive rights and screwing up the patriarchy with the same fervour and knowledge as she has recounting Romeo + Juliet. Which, as you can tell from the below deep-dive into everything the film taught her about life, is a lot. So, here goes!
1. Imitation is the highest form of flattery
“The Greek myth of Orpheus is the original iteration of Romeo and Juliet. Then later it was made into an Italian opera, which is why it's set in Verona, Italy. Shakespeare stumbled upon the opera, then wrote what we know as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which was then turned into a film in the 1960s, I believe. Then Baz’s Romeo + Juliet, and now hopeless fountain kingdom. The story is such a universal thing, which is what makes such a perfect topic to reinterpret.”
2. But some things need a major update
“I'm the first women, to my knowledge, to popularly interpret Romeo and Juliet. And I fucking totally ripped it from the patriarchy, in my opinion. I gender swapped the characters -- I'm Romeo, he's Juliet. And I wanted to steer away from the idea that Juliet is just this idiot girl who will follow her lover into the depths of hell. My Romeo and Juliet story is, what if Juliet chose her? What if she chose herself? Please heed my warning, young lovers out there -- choose yourself. Please, for the love of god, there is no love in the world that is worth losing yourself over.”
3. All hate is motivated by love
“[In Romeo and Juliet] everyone who dies, everyone who loses something -- it's happening because of their love of their name, their love of their family, their love of themselves. Hate is so often driven by love, but love born from hate cannot survive.”
4. Don’t idealise the love of Romeo and Juliet because it’s pretty messed up
“People who have never read it are like, "Oh you're so like Romeo and Juliet" and it's like, "I hope to fucking god we're not". Couples in popular culture get romanticised. Whether it's like Johnny Cash and June, or Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan -- it's like, if you really look at all those stories, a lot of those men were completely abusing these women, and a lot these women were sacrificing their entire lives to help facilitate their partner’s career. We just put these couples on a pedestal, and it's darker behind the curtains. If you haven't read Romeo and Juliet then you can make that very evident by saying it's the greatest love story of all time, because if you knew better you would know that it’s truly the saddest. It's the worst. It's also the most self-indulgent, awful, dramatic -- they knew each other for like 15 days, and she was 13. It’s fucked actually.”
5. Adults don’t always know what's best
“There are some really good adult figures in Baz's Romeo + Juliet, and there are some awful ones as well. The parents are just the worst grown ups ever, but then you also have the nurse and the apothecary. You get to see how these adults either helped to guide these young people, or really lead them down a path of destruction through their negligence.”
6. We basically have kids to thank for holding the world together
“The greatest political voices of our generation are high school students. High school students who are failed by the adults around them, failed by the system and the institutions that have been laid in place for decades. It’s inspiring, but it's also... really demoralising. That paradox -- I’m inspired by them, but I’m also so devastated as to why they need to be this way.”
7. If you want something to shine, make it rhyme
“Shakespeare wrote the whole thing in iambic pentameter, and my poem [at the Women’s March] is written really similarly. Rhythm is the most effective form of language. That's why Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet like a rap song. It's literally a rap song. And that's why I wrote my speech like that as well. I was sitting down trying to write a speech and I couldn't think of anything. I was fucked. What do I write about? Do I write about sexual assault in the workplace? Do I write about equal wages? Intersectional feminism? Women's reproductive rights? I was like: it's the Women's March! This is the broadest topic of all time and I don't fucking know what to say. The lightbulb went off when I realised that if I wanted people to relate to it, I needed to do it rhythmically. Song is a universal language, it's how people all over the world connect to a human emotion, and it's why Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has existed for such a long time. As long as humans have existed, and as long as they will, a rhythmic deliverance of a story is going to be far more effective.”
8. Wake up, sheeples! Turn off the screens and look people in the eye!
“My poem would not have been nearly as effective if it didn't come from my voice. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet wouldn't be nearly as effective if it weren't a play. Seeing people speak the words and seeing people’s emotions and connecting personally is the root of human understanding.”
9. Body language is just as effective at conveying emotion as words
“Romeo + Juliet is so Bollywood-influenced. And Bollywood is really successful at communicating a human emotion through movement. The way that it's delivered verbally in this rhythmic pattern, it’s visually executed in the same way. Every single one of Baz's films is choreographed. If you look at The Great Gatsby, they all walk in, everyone opens the windows at the same time, everything is choreographed. The language of these visual things, in the way they work in conjunction with what you're hearing is so important, because if they're speaking rhythmically they need to move rhythmically.”
9. Be grateful to Baz to thank for reuniting Radiohead
“Baz asked Radiohead to write the credit song for Romeo + Juliet, and they were like yeah, sure. And then they split. But Baz wanted the song from Radiohead so badly. So Thom Yorke called the guys and was like, 'Ugh, I told Baz I'd do this fucking song for his movie... we just have to do this one last thing. I know we all hate each other, but we have to do this one last thing.' So they all got in the studio together and they're not talking and they won't look at each other and Thom starts messing around with this piano bit. And someone else starts playing this guitar bit. And without speaking they're all looking at each other like, huh... I kind of like this. And they made a couple songs that night. One of them is fortunately in Romeo + Juliet, thank you Baz. The rest of them are the beginning of OK Computer. So if he hadn't asked them to get in the studio to make that song, we wouldn't have one of the greatest -- I want to say rock album, but, we wouldn't have one of the greatest albums of all time. He's fully responsible for it, and he knows he's responsible for it, and he'll tell you all about it because he's really proud of it.”
11. Fuck things up a bit
“The soundtrack still stands the test of time today. Even just how he slowed and stopped and skewed and chopped records to match certain scenes. Like the Mercutio ecstacy scene when they're pulling up to the party -- it's like this awful, drugged out bad bad trip. I watch that and feel like I'm on drugs, like, holy shit, this awful. And Baz knew how powerful that was.”
12. Vintage finds are the best finds
“The costume designer and production designer for all Baz’s films is his wife, Catherine Martin. And they were working really closely together -- their synergy is unbelievable. Even down to the day that she's coming through a thrift store in Boca Raton, Mexico and comes across a blue shirt with Lady Guadalupe on it and said, this is the shirt. And it's the shirt that we all know today to be the Leo shirt. She picks it up in a vintage store and says, this is the one. Has no idea what this moment's about to be and he goes -- you're right, that's it. And that synergy is so important.”
13. Hope trumps hate
“When I wrote hopeless fountain kingdom I treated it very much like a movie. There's the rising action, there's a climax, it's a story embryo. It's like, our character starts out in a place where they don't want to be and they're unhappy and seeking something greater. They get what they want but at a very great cost. And the audience realises that maybe that would've been better off.... You know what I mean. That story embryo -- my record follows that arc as well. And that's why the last lyric on my album is, ‘I hope hopeless changes over time’.“