There’s been a lot of hype around Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Netflix series The Get Down, accompanied by a healthy dose of controversy. It’s only to be expected when a white Australian director digs his teeth into the origins of hip hop culture and takes his stylized cinematic brand to the burning Boogie Down of the late-1970s. But time has shown that the director of The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge has at least made an effort to do it right, with a writing team packed to the brim with authentic OG’s ranging from Nelson George to Grandmaster Flash. It also doesn’t hurt that the show’s virtuoso trailer looks has all the color, brashness, and attitude of an urban youth movement on the brink of taking over the world.
With an official release date of August 12, Luhrmann graced New York audiences with a sneak preview of the series followed by an enlightening chat moderated by Nelson George at the Tribeca Film Festival. Over an hour, Luhrmann reflected on his personal style, his small-town origins, working with Prince, and the spark that led to the creation of The Get Down. Along the way he name-dropped everyone from Kool Herc to Nas, both of whom apparently played important roles in the development of the series, and mentioned that “half the cast of Hamilton” appears in his new series.
All in all it was a lively discussion that showed Luhrmann’s sincerity and Nelson George’s grasp of hip hop history that should certainly raise expectations for The Get Down’s premiere even higher. As if a Netflix series boasting Latino talent like Jimmy Smits and newcomer Herizen Guardiola needed to do much more convincing. Check out some highlights from the panel below.
On Writing “When Doves Cry” Into the Script for Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet was a really extraordinary journey because I set out to look at, you know, if Shakespeare were making a film how might he go about doing that. I was already pretty steeped in the world of Shakespeare and how he went about making plays, but I spent a lot of time researching that. So despite what some analysts say — you know “The MTV Romeo and Juliet” — all the choices were based on things that happened in the Elizabethan theater. Now one of the things they did in Shakespeare’s time is that they would have taken a popular song of the time and put it right in the middle of the play… and use it to advance the story. So I was really committed to that, also because the language is musical. Iambic is musical… And when [co-writer] Craig Pearce and I started working on the text, we didn’t write the adaptation and then go, “Gee, what song will we put in it?” We wrote: “And a choir boy sings an a cappella gospel version of ‘When Doves Cry’,” so we wrote it into the script… And working with [Prince], I mean he is what he appears to be. Just one of a kind. And it’s a great sadness that he’s no longer with us.
On His Throwback Style
I grew up in a very isolated place, tiny country town. And we had this one black and white television and we lived in the middle of nowhere, so we only had one channel and they gave away what they considered “junk movies” for nothing. And in the 70s junk movies would be considered like, The Red Shoes, or Citizen Kane, or The Young Lions. So I was fed at a very early age on this kind of heightened cinema that was being reacted against when I was growing up. You know the 70s came along and the New Wave and all that. So I think it left a sense of… they’re romantic in the sense that they’re amplifications, they’re expressionistic, and I think I got lumbered with that.
On the Director As Emcee
GEORGE: One of the shocking things of watching you direct, particularly the moving sequences which are elaborate and amazing on our show, is that Baz — he DJs the shoot. So we’re there, there are dancers and he’s on the mic, “Yo! Yo! Yo! Let’s go!” He’s giving high-energy MC all night, I mean we’re talking about for hours.
LUHRMANN: You do that much better than me, Nelson.
GEORGE: And literally he’s like a DJ or and MC at a party of his own shoot. And so, when you look at the big dance numbers, it’s Baz’s commentary during the shoot of, “That girl in the red dress! Let’s go!”
“I was always compelled by this question: in this borough on its knees, how did so much creativity come out of it, and go on to change not just the city but the entire globe?”
LUHRMANN: Actually it’s for a very good purpose, because one of the things about shooting large party sequences or sequences with lots of what people refer to as “background,” I have a rule: there is no background in my films and there are no extras, just actors. Everybody’s acting.
On the Pre-History of Hip Hop
The period that we picked — you know I was drawn to the subject many years ago… I was always compelled by this question that is: in this borough on its knees, how did so much creativity come out of it, and how did it come out of it and go on to change not just the city but the entire globe? That’s the question that drew me in, not “let’s do the history of hip hop.” People say that and it’s not really true, because if anything it’s the pre-history. Because what’s really interesting is that the year we’ve set it in, 1977, was the biggest year in musical history. And disco was reigning, disco was unassailable, and we have this character that says, “I’m gonna be a disco star.” There was no other road, it was like disco was king… I mean she’s on the cultural Titanic…. And what’s amazing about that is that in ’79, and that’s two years later, disco crashes overnight and that same summer Sugar Hill Band drops… Three months later there’s nothing less than like five hip hop records on the charts — in the last month of the decade… That’s what really attracted me. Yes it was the pre-history, but it was how hip hop, disco, and punk all lived side by side and they all had this parallel universe.
On Collaborating With Hip Hop Legends
GEORGE: There’s a very significant figure in hip hop who’s helping us. We should talk about that.
LUHRMANN: Yes, Grandmaster Flash is helping us. Rahiem from the Furious Five, Curtis Blow. Our young performers we have Justice [Smith] and Jaden Smith. We also have Jimmy Smits, there’s lots of J.S. on our show. And Shameik Moore who was in Dope and Herizen [Guardiola]. They’re all young and are at the beginning of their careers. We have a young fella who’s just 14. We discovered him rhyming in the subway in the Bronx. Now he’s in 13 episodes of The Get Down and he’s a lead player. One of the things, that I don’t think anybody knows because it’s not in the trailer. But, one of the characters goes on, and we discover that he’s actually a successful rap star in the nineties. He narrates it through rhyming, through rap. One of the collaborators I’ve been working with to write these rhymes, and he’s a producer of the show, is one of the most iconic voices of the nineties, and that’s Nas. He has been this huge creative force in the production… And actually we have half the cast of Hamilton in the show.
On Why We Haven’t Seen Something Like The Get Down Before
“One of the collaborators I’ve been working with to write these rhymes, and he’s a producer of the show, is one of the most iconic voices of the nineties, and that’s Nas.”
[Grandmaster] Flash has a great metaphor, he says “Everyone wants to know about the cake, but no one wants to know about the recipe.” Meaning, everyone’s interested in the 80s, because it was happening, but no ones really interested in how it came about. And the other thing is, and I don’t want to tread into difficult territory, but the wonderful thing about working with Herc was at some point he said, “I gotta tell you a secret.” And he says, the secret is my mother and father were there and sometimes my mom would cook hot dogs for everyone at the first get downs. And what he was saying was, they were so young and there was so much difficulty in the streets that the dances were being made to get everyone off of the streets, to do a positive thing. And I think the simple beauty of that, and the naiveté of that has become lost a bit in the history of hip hop… There’s a lot of heart in it.
Naiveté is the wrong word, but I think heartiness, just a joy and a desire to express without any possibility you might make money out of it. Like think when those kids are risking their lives tagging trains, they know it’s going to be washed off the next day, but why do they do it, as one kid says in Style Wars the documentary, “Cause mama, when I see my name up there, I am somebody.” And that’s why they do it, and to me that’s the purest form of expression. Of course it’s great that you’re acknowledged, of course it’s great you get an income out of it eventually, but the fact is all the people in that prehistory were doing it, because when they did it they felt they were somebody. And I think that’s what I’ve come to realize in this journey.