- 22 Aug 16
Hollywood’s over-the-top master of ceremonies is making his first foray into television with a Netflix show chronicling the birth of hip hop. But, wonders Ed Power, can Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down – the most expensive TV show in history – live up to the hype?
For Baz Luhrmann, 1977 was the year everything changed.
That was the year – age 15 – he fled the one-horse Australian town where he grew up, dreaming of bright lights and glittering possibilities. Elvis, a touchstone from his childhood, had just passed away and his death plunged Luhrmann even deeper into teenage turmoil. But perhaps the most significant event was unfolding, in fits and starts, on the other side of the world, as the dystopian nowheresville of New York’s South Bronx spawned an entirely new genre of music. The tremors are still felt to this day. “How did so much creativity come out of a moment where this city seemed to be on its knees?” Luhrmann asked in a recent interview with Billboard magazine. “And just pursuing this question led me down a road where I met Nelson George and I reached out to Grandmaster Flash and DJ Cool Herc.”
These were some of the most influential figures in the early rap scene – DJs such as Flash and Herc and journalist George, the first writer to understand that the beats and rhymes spilling from the warehouses and abandoned backlots of the Bronx had the potential to permanently recalibrate popular culture. Nobody knew it, but the revolution was underway. Thirty nine years later, Luhrmann has spun television stardust from this fascinating story of impoverished kids creating a new vernacular – one that would go on to reshape not only music but also fashion and the English language. In his new Netflix series, The Get Down, Luhrmann chronicles the birth tremors of hip hop, tracing its origins in one of the most impoverished parts of a city then on its knees.
It was a labour of love for the Oscar-nominated director – but also a push uphill. The biggest challenge lay in recognising that, in order for The Get Down to fulfil its potential, Luhrmann would have to assume a hands-off role. He had originally imagined himself overseeing the show from a relative distance – a kindly “uncle” pitching in with advice but not sweating it out in the writers’s room on an ongoing basis.
However, personnel changes behind the scenes coupled with an eleventh hour decision to shoot on location in New York rather than in Los Angeles as originally planned, resulted in Luhrmann, assisted by his regular stage and costume designer Catherine Martin (also his wife), taking command. He was further mindful of a ballooning budget that will see the total cost of the show exceed $120 million – making it by several estimations the most expensive TV show ever (an average season of Game of Thrones by comparison comes in at a little over $100 m).
“Baz and I went into this thinking, ‘well this will be really civilised’,” Martin told me recently. “We’ll get to work in New York. There’ll be somebody else in charge – a show-runner – and we’ll executive produce; overseeing, gently guiding. In fact, we have been 100% involved every step of the way. It’s been a lot more than I ever thought.”
Beyond the mythology and the history-making The Get Down is at heart a straightforward love story. We follow teen poet and would-be rapper Ezekiel ‘Books’ Figueroa (Justice Smith) and disco singer Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) – a star-crossed couple in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, which was famously blinged out for the screen by Luhrmann with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Luhrmann also adds magic realism, with the semi-superheroic character of Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), an enigmatic vinyl collector soaring above the city with the assistance of his apparently supernatural chunky running shoes.
”Despite all the research and history, at the centre of it there is a relationship between a boy and a girl who are just crazy in first love,” said Luhrmann. To ensure accuracy, he worked with Grandmaster Flash and as well with George, author of Hip Hop America and the James Brown Reader. The latter contributor sees rap music as one of the great flowerings of African-American culture in the 20th century and the one that has traveled furthest around the globe.
“We have great literature like Toni Morrison, we have great filmmakers, but here we have a guy can that can go into a room and express himself, boom! It goes across the globe, that’s never been done and black people have never had that kind of access,” said Luhrmann. “I think there’s negativity in individual things about it, but overall its impact on the globe has been positive.
“In 1977, disco was reigning and soaring. Rock was really decadent. You’ve got Son of Sam, terrorism, an oil crisis, crazy cults. Elvis dies. And in this year, in an outer borough, kids are doing this stuff that no one cares about. How, with so little, did this singular creative gesture that would go on to change the world get born?”
The show doesn’t have any genuine stars, with the possible exception of Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays an aspiring graffiti artist.
“It’s pretty much all following these fictional kids in the Bronx and it’s telling their story and giving all types of historical facts,” said Smith in an interview with the Complex website. “It’s also painting the picture of the Bronx crumbling down – the landlords are burning down apartment buildings just to get the insurance. It’s painting the dystopia of the broken, crumbling Bronx. But so much art and creativity still sprouted out of all of that.”
Ironically, the one group who may find The Get Down a queasy watch are hip hop purists. With typical – nay trademark – gusto, Luhrmann sprinkles a thick layer of stardust all over the screen, so that the grit and desperation of late ‘70s New York is glossed over. Instead, this is a typically fabulous Luhrmann fandango, with endless song and dance numbers, gorgeous costumes and set pieces to die for, including a dance-off in a gangster nightclub that feels like a spiritual continuation of his controversial re-imagining of The Great Gatsby.
In other words, some people will love it, a few will loathe it, and Luhrmann will take satisfaction in knowing he did not water down his vision to appeal to the haters.
“As much as I’ve probably avoided admitting it, ultimately I’m a romantic,’ Luhrmann reflects. “Romanticism means that things are better than they could possibly be. I think I probably seek that. Not just in my work, but in my life, and that does sometimes beget tragic circumstances. Gatsby sees an unrealistic, impossibly perfect universe. He refused to let anyone disturb his perfect vision of the perfect love and it ends in tragedy.”
Episodes one to six of The Get Down are on Netflix now