Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film was a huge hit with audiences upon its first release. It was also criticized in some quarters for those very features that made it so popular. The critic Leslie Halliwell called it the "with-it version for modern youngsters." For many young people at the time, one of the most striking things was the brief nudity that occurs in the film. This was a period when Hollywood was opening up and dealing more openly with sexual matters than had been permitted in the past. Films were both a reflection of and an influence upon the changes taking place, especially in American society in the 1960s, and in particular with regard to sexual freedom.
The actors chosen for the roles were also reflective of the culture and its emphasis upon youth. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting were fifteen and seventeen, respectively, when the film was released. They were also newcomers to the screen, and these factors imparted a natural, spontaneous quality to their performances and the way they were perceived by the public. One might contrast this with the version made thirty years earlier starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, who, at the time, were much older and were already famous actors and well-established as Hollywood stars. Hussey and Whiting were non-establishment figures in a time when many were rebelling.
In the scene in which Romeo and Juliet first meet, a song is interpolated by Zeffirelli which does not appear in Shakespeare's play. The liberty the director exercises in doing so no doubt upset the purists, but again, it was typical of a time when any sort of freedom or license, whether in art or in society overall, was being celebrated. The music for this scene was then made into the song, "A Time for Us," demonstrating the crossover phenomenon in which the distinction between serious and popular genres has been blurred.
The film's music, by Nino Rota, in a more general sense fits in with the cultural changes of the late 1960s, despite its being a symphonic score. The extent to which Rota's music dominates the film is unusual in comparison with other movies based on Shakespeare. It is extravagant and lush in a manner that typifies the emphasis on unalloyed passion that became central to the ethos of the sixties.