The last time I took ecstasy was at a trance party near the beach just north of Durban, shortly after I’d finished reading Matt Ruff’s brilliant fantasy novel “Fool on the Hill.” It was a surreal experience. I took three pills and not long thereafter I found myself on a mattress making out with a pair of very dry lips whose owner I had not even seen. To my good fortune, they turned out to belong to a rather attractive South African girl. All things considered, I’m just lucky it turned out to be a girl. I’ve heard it said that you should never marry someone you met while on ecstasy, at least not in the first six months, and I’m quite sure that it’s true.
I doubt I’ll ever take ecstasy again, but it has nothing to do with Annette (we dated for a few weeks, but the initial spark went out pretty quickly). Something about the way my brain was inputting information was very unsettling that evening. Every so often, my vision would scatter and jump, and it was almost like I could visualize neurological connections in my brain short-circuiting and disappearing in a puff of metallic-smelling smoke. In the scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) where Romeo first infiltrates the Capulet mansion and meets Juliet, Baz Luhrmann creates one of the more inspired visualizations of what an ecstasy trip is actually like.
The Film: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
The Artists: Kym Mazelle and Des’ree
Who’s Who: I don’t think I really need to discuss the stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers, except to mention the role of Juliet was originally meant to go to Natalie Portman. And the film features an impressive ensemble of familiar stars, including Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Pete Postlewaithe, and John Leguizamo, as well as providing an early look at future heartthrobs Jesse Bradford and Paul Rudd. The movie even includes a surprisingly watchable Jamie Kennedy as a pink-haired lesser Montague.
Baz Luhrmann, the film’s director, had only one feature to his credit prior to Romeo and Juliet, an independent Australian film called Strictly Ballroom (1992). Much the way that Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003) tackled the unique subcultures of dog breeding and folk music, Strictly Ballroom dealt with the subculture of ballroom dancing. Luhrmann later went on to direct Moulin Rouge, which utilized the same techniques of lurid colors, hyperkinetic editing, and intense close-ups as his first two films.
Kym Mazelle came from the same city, Gary Indiana, as the Jackson family. In fact, she was brought up on the very same street. Mazelle, who was originally born Kimberly Grigsby, enjoyed some success in Europe, but her second album, Brilliant, only managed to take a modest hold with audiences in the United States. Her cover of Candi Stanton’s 1976 R&B hit “Young Hearts Run Free” was most likely the high point of her career, although she did enjoy a return into public view in the British reality show Celebrity Fit Club in 2005.
Des’ree was considerably more successful, scoring a hit with “You Gotta Be” in 1994 and following with strong sales of her second album I Ain’t Movin’, a concept album that presciently predicted how a president might respond to an aide who interrupted a reading of “The Pet Goat” to inform him that the nation he was leading was “under attack.” Another interesting Jackson family connection: Des’ree successfully sued Janet Jackson for incorporating parts of Des’ree’s “Feel So High” into Jackson’s Grammy award-winning single “Got ‘Till It’s Gone” from 1997’s The Velvet Rope without acknowledging the contribution.
Why it Works: This scene does a splendid job of capturing the essential nature of an ecstasy trip. While it’s fun to develop special effects to mimic the kaleidoscopic effects of LSD or mushrooms, most films that attempt this take it too far, and end up with scenes that are fun to watch but don’t give an accurate representation of what the trip actually looks like. I wouldn’t call myself a full-on psychonaut, but my own experiences have taught me that although your mind will play a few tricks on you, it’s nothing like what you see in most movies. I haven’t seen many directors that attempt to visualize an ecstasy trip (the only other example that comes to mind in the overlooked Stark Raving Mad in 2002), instead preferring to use it as a device to affect their characters’ behavior (Orange County, Go, Bad Boys 2). Baz Luhrmann is one of the few directors who attempts to show you more than just what it looks like, but what it actually feels like.
As with most drugs, everything takes on a surreal aspect. You find yourself asking questions like “Is my best friend really dragged out in a silver miniskirt and leading a cabaret of dancers?” and “Is the wife of the local crime lord really tongue-kissing her nephew?” and “Am I really handing the keys to my uninsured car over to my friend who has taken eight pills and liquid acid over the course of the evening so I can go home with someone I’ve only just met?” But you don’t see dancing bears, or pink elephants, or squirrels wearing sunglasses carrying sacks of gold coins (or at least I haven’t).
The pair of scenes that accompany “Young Hearts Run Free” and “Kissing You” do a nice job of capturing both the peak and subsequent slide back down of an ecstasy trip. The club mix of Kym Mazelle’s song has such high energy that it’s just right for the party as we see it from Romeo’s perspective – a chaotic mess of confusing and potentially dangerous images that eventually overwhelm him. And the gentle piano and smooth vocals of Des’ree’s song are a perfect background for the kind of lapse in judgment that accompanies seeing a pretty girl through a fish tank and deciding that she’s the love of your life.
What Goes Wrong: Obviously whether the first part of this scene works is a matter of personal taste. If you approve of Luhrmann’s method of infusing every second of this film with bright colors, loud noises, and literal fireworks, you’ll enjoy it. If you prefer your Shakespeare to be presented with a more stately approach, it’s a travesty. Much like Dr. Frasier Crane’s adaptation of the Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities to suit the lowbrow tastes of the barflies in Cheers, Luhrmann attempts to make the tangled plots and complex language of Shakespeare accessible to the MTV generation in spite of their disordered attention spans. If you think this is a worthwhile endeavor, he’s probably succeeded. If not, there’s simply no way he could.
Other Stuff: Say no to drugs, kids.