“You want to hear about the difficult bits? My God. How much time have you got?” roars Baz Luhrmann, referring to the challenges of his small-screen directorial debut. “It nearly killed me!”
The Get Down, a 70s music drama of which he is at the helm, is about the birth of hip hop during the time when disco still reigned supreme. The idea of dueling musical genres vying for the number one spot, with hip hop emerging from the streets of the Bronx while a few miles away Studio 54 ruled Manhattan, fascinated the effusive director.
“I wanted to do this as a film 10 years ago. What drew me to the subject was the idea of how these kids in this incredibly deconstructed time come up with a brand new musical idea. When people were using guns to solve their tension, they decided, ‘I will get two records and make a beat.’ And then came the poetry. How did they end up spraying all that art in that rusty degenerated place full of racial tension that was New York City at that time?’ But creativity tends to come from the least likely place.”
With the exception of Jimmy Smits, the behind-the camera talent — Lurhmann, his wife, four-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin, and co-creator and Pulitzer prize-winner Stephen Adly — were bigger names than the actors.
An ambitious project and certainly not without financial risk for Netflix, Luhrmann says, “I am known in the business, but can you imagine going into a meeting saying, ‘It’s going to be a high-end budget and the leads are unknown Latino and African-American kids?” He laughs. “You could see their faces. ‘Yeah, man. We really want that!’ Not really. Of course we have Jimmy Smits and we are lucky to have him.”
But now, US$120 million dollars later (the budget has been referred to as ‘among the most expensive in TV history’), it has been met with mixed reviews, though some declare it to be worth every cent.’ Lurhmann says, “I’m not careless with money but it wasn’t cheap, and that’s for a reason.”
How Lurhmann, raised in Heron’s Creek, rural New South Wales, without any visible common ground with these kids from the Bronx, was able to convince the powers-that-be to trust him to bring this story to the screen, is a feat in itself. He says, “It’s not my story. I’m the curator,” he explains. “And I almost didn’t do it because I thought to myself, ‘Is it right that I do this project?’ Yes, it may seem a bit odd but I have some credit that I can cash in. Meaning, I can get things made that others can’t if I get behind it.” And remember, this is not the first time Luhrmann has delved into American history. “I also made a movie about America’s most revered book, The Great Gatsby, and I didn’t live in that world, either.”
Luhrmann follows many A-list actors and directors to the small screen. “I remember, when I came to Sydney, the thing that changed my mind about television was what they called ‘a television event.’ That was Roots, and the whole world stopped to watch it. Then came The Holocaust, something I knew little about, and the world stopped to watch that,” he says. “And now with things like Netflix offering this giant canvas to work on, it was the right place to tell this story. It had to have that kind of scale because this story, the expanse of it, is huge.”
With a 92-minute pilot, the 13-part series runs over 60 minutes per episode. Maintaining authenticity was integral to the show’s success. A hip hop boot camp was formed, run by Grandmaster Flash, Nelson George and Kurtis Blow, who served as educators in the ways of hip hop so the actors could become fully immersed in the origin story of the genre.
“With these actors, every reference they have for hip hop comes from the 90s. It has nothing to do with what was going on in the Bronx at a time where no one had heard about it or ever cared about it. So Kurtis Blow, for example, a hip hop legend, talked to them about everything – from how to stand and hold a microphone to how to move. At that time, the term ‘hip hop’ did not yet exist, and would not be coined for another three years; the genre began as The Beats or The Breaks.”
Lurhmann and Martin moved to New York for 18 months to develop the show, to ensure they got all the elements right. “Netflix demands that the standards be as high as possible. [The Netflix executives are] the people who entrusted me with this story, [who] not only invited me into their world, but their homes and their lives.” He pauses. “I have to be cautious of what I say, because I can already see the ‘Luhrmann Whines About Never Getting A Weekend Off’ headline. But I have not had a weekend off in two years, and the only way of doing it properly was by relentless work and not dropping the ball.”
Evidently, The Get Down has invigorated him. “Even though I say I am exhausted, and I am, I wouldn’t say I am young again, but it got me back to being fulfilled about the work that I do, the storytelling.”
At age 53, some might be surprised at Lurhmann’s musical tastes. He laughs. “People say, ‘Are you really into hip hop?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but I also love opera. To me, there is just great music and not great music.”