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Tracing the birth of a new musical form
THE Get Down got Baz Luhrmann - in more ways than one.
For years, the filmmaker with a reputation for meticulous attention to detail and an extravagant visual style had been mulling over a tribute to hip-hop culture, but when he finally got the go-ahead he was flummoxed by production delays and budget overruns, in part because he allowed others to look after the details when he should have exercised firmer control.
When the going got tough he dug in and emerged with The Get Down, a flashy and ambitious new series that figures to put its finger on the cultural pulse of a place, and an era.
The first six episodes of the Sony Pictures Television-produced series are available on Netflix from Aug 12.
What's a guy like Luhrmann doing with a series about the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx anyway? "The answer is I don't really know - I asked myself that question so often," says Luhrmann, an Aussie who was raised - some 300 kilometres north of Sydney and a million miles away from hip-hop - in the small township of Herons Creek (population 312).
"I've always been an outsider; there wasn't much to talk of in Herons Creek so I've always looked to other worlds," says Luhrmann, 53, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles recently. He notes that similar questions applied when he made period films based on Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet, 1996), Paris in the Jazz Age (Moulin Rouge!, 2001) and the American Dream (The Great Gatsby, 2013).
The Get Down is Luhrmann's first foray into television and he says without hesitation that it's the most difficult project he's ever worked on. The series - over two years in the making and drastically over budget (at US$120 million and counting by some estimates) - has been what might euphemistically be termed a "learning experience".
"I probably should have admitted that a) it's a musical and b) committed myself fully from Day One - not start without me," says Luhrmann. "I thought it could be done at arm's length and thought I could inspire others, be like an associate to it. The truth is, there is no short-cut, no matter how much you think there is one." He adds: "I wanted to know how a pure new creative form was born and I met many people in pursuit of that quest."
These include the pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash, whose character is featured on the show, rap stars like Nas, who wrote the rhymes by one of the main characters and Nelson George, hip-hop writer and supervising producer on The Get Down, which tells the story of a group of Black and Latino teenagers as they grapple with growing up in 1970s New York and being at the forefront of a new musical form, becoming masters of self-invention in the process. "It took a while to get the thing on track," reveals George. "I know hip-hop but Baz is the engine behind the storytelling, he has a real understanding of music and he's a risk-taker."
Some of those risks are evident on screen in the form of the stylised visuals, the theatrical musical numbers, stilted dialogue and the (at times) awkward narrative. "The subject is epic and Netflix offers a vast canvas, the biggest possible canvas," says Luhrmann, who admits he was often overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the undertaking. "The Get Down isn't television, it's its own creation - it got out of hand at times and there was a cost in terms of time and physical health."
Despite the doubters and the setbacks, The Get Down eventually finds its groove, and Luhrmann had the added satisfaction of a positive response from the community whose story he told. "We screened recently in the Bronx and the visceral reaction alone was terrific - the crowd really reacted to it," he shares. "My films have been popular with certain kinds of audiences who like to participate - hip-hop is a participatory music form, and it's very much about engagement with the audience."
Thanks to the Netflix streaming format, a large number of viewers will soon be familiar with characters like Ezekiel "Books" Figueroa, Shaolin Fantastic and the velvety-voiced Mylene Cruz. "We have an incredibly sexy, dynamic cast," notes George. "The series will be seen by those who are old-school and also large groups of 20-somethings - we are going to be a millennial show."
Adds Luhrmann: "These unknowns will have millions of people from around the world getting to know them - these kids made a hero's journey."
There is a certain sense of relief now that the first six episodes are available on screen, but there are also another six episodes of the first season to finish up - they are scheduled to be released early next year.
"I don't believe the end is in sight," sighs Luhrmann, who simply insists on getting every detail just right. "The Get Down got me."