How Baz Luhrmann-ish is The Get Down?

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Photo: Netflix and 20th Century Fox

It is perfectly accurate to describe The Get Down, the new Netflix drama about the birth of hip-hop in the '70s, as a Baz Luhrmann production. It’s also equally correct to characterize it as a collaborative effort. Which raises an important question, especially for those trying to decide whether to invest in the six episodes out on the streaming service today: Exactly how much of The Get Down feels like a Baz Luhrmann movie?

This is a tricky one to answer, in part because of the practical facts behind how The Get Down was made. Luhrmann — the Australian auteur known for injecting contemporary, frenetic energy into stories steeped in the past, via such movies as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and The Great Gatsby — came up with the concept for the show. He ultimately became its showrunner after parting ways with two previous showrunners, and directed its pilot. But the other five episodes on Netflix — six or seven more are due sometime next year — were directed by TV veterans Ed Bianchi, Andrew Bernstein, and Michael Dinner. Luhrmann also worked with a fleet of other creators to bring his vision to life over a now-famously bumpy two-and-a-half year period, including, among others, co-creator and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis; hip-hop artist Nas, who served as an executive producer; associate producer and rap legend Grandmaster Flash (also a character in the series, played by Mamoudou Athie); and supervising producer Nelson George, an author and filmmaker who has frequently examined the history of hip-hop and black culture. The point is, as is the case on any TV series, Luhrmann is not the only engine that makes this machine run.

But as Guirgis explains in a Get Down-focused episode of the Vulture TV Podcast, Luhrmann certainly served as the creative center around which everything else rotated. His sensibility informs all aspects of the series, from its often rapid tonal switches to its heightened, occasionally even mystical version of Bronx life in 1977.

As ridiculous as it seems for a white dude from Australia to helm the first scripted series to dig deeply into hip-hop’s origin story — especially a white dude who named a black character in one of his movies Chocolat — the more I watched The Get Down, the more I understood why the subject appealed to Luhrmann and why it works in his hands. While The Get Down covers very different subject matter, there’s something about it that feels very much of a piece with the films in Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy: Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge!

Like Strictly Ballroom, The Get Down focuses on young, scrappy, underprivileged kids attempting to push beyond the boundaries their parents/guardians have set for them and establish their identities through creative expression. Like Romeo + Juliet, there is a love story at the center of The Get Down: between up-and-coming MC Ezekiel (the charismatic Justice Smith) and aspiring singer Mylene (a radiant Herizen Guardiola). There is no long-standing family rivalry that prevents these two from being together. Instead, it’s their conflicting musical interests that play the role of potential relationship blocker. Rather than Montagues vs. Capulets, in The Get Down, we get Furious Five hip-hop vs. Donna Summer disco. (In its flirtier, testing-the-waters moments, the relationship between Ezekiel, who’s half-black and half-Puerto Rican, and Mylene, who’s Latina, also feels a little reminiscent of West Side Story — appropriate, since that musical was based on Romeo and Juliet.)

Stylistically, The Get Down reminds me most frequently of Moulin Rouge! Visually, it’s not as lush, opulent, or outright zany; no one, at any point, busts out a rap version of “Spectacular, Spectacular,” which I believe is for the greater good. But there are echoes of that Oscar-nominated, gonzo-jukebox rock opera everywhere in Luhrmann’s first foray into television.

Moulin Rouge! was ambitious, wild, and unwieldy — either a little or a lot, depending on your taste — and The Get Down is like that, too, especially in its Luhrmann-directed pilot. Like Moulin Rouge!, it immediately establishes its intent to tell a story set in a particular time and place, featuring people who actually lived then. (In addition to the Grandmaster and DJ Kool Herc, politicians like Ed Koch also make appearances.) It introduces us to characters like Shaolin Fantastic, a Bronx hustler and street legend who can work magic on a turntable and quite literally leap tall buildings in a single bound. Several of the characters in The Get Down are characterized as martial-arts/mythological/comic-book superheroes, and their stories are told, like the story of Moulin Rouge!, primarily from the perspective of a young poet with sweeping vision. It also is clearly a Production, with a capital P.

The second and much stronger half of the pilot takes place at Les Inferno, a seedy Bronx disco where several storylines and characters converge in a chaotic swirl of dance, decadence, and potential danger, which radiates an energy reminiscent of the bacchanal at the Baz-ed-up version of the Moulin Rouge. There are no cancan girls present, but honestly, if there were, no eyelashes would even be batted. 

But what feels even more Baz-ish (Luhrmann-y?) about The Get Down is the way it so frequently and quickly hops back and forth between scenes. Luhrmann’s films often play a game of chicken with the human eye, throwing out as much visual candy as possible, as if daring the audience to blink. To a more restrained degree, Luhrmann and the directors working with him on this series play that same game. In every episode, there is at least one sequence that toggles back and forth between separate story threads; it’s as if Luhrmann and the other filmmakers are working The Get Down like their own turntable, playing one record for a few seconds, then pausing it and letting another one spin. (Luhrmann acknowledged that approach in an interview with Complex: “I tried to find that style to get everyone's attention,” he said. “When Flash saw it, I was so nervous, but he went like, ‘Bazzy, you're a DJ,’ and I took that as a massive compliment.”) A sequence in the sixth episode works that mix-master effect by weaving together three separate threads, each one connected by characters’ attempts to exert and abuse power. The whole thing builds to an explosive, violent crescendo, in a way that reminded me a lot of the “El Tango de Roxanne” sequence in Moulin Rouge!

And then, of course, there’s the music. As he demonstrated in Romeo + Juliet, his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and especially Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann is a sampler, a filmmaker who revels in mashing up genres and preexisting musical tracks so that they sound like an entirely new composition. Obviously hip-hop was built on the same principle, and Luhrmann adheres to it, not only by showing the way Grandmaster, Shaolin, Ezekiel, and their fellow hip-hop pioneers build a musical style from the ground up, but also via a soundtrack that fuses funk, disco, gospel, and rap into the equivalent of a seamless, single, long-playing record.

Unlike this year’s two other high-profile, music-based shows spearheaded by auteurs — Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl and Cameron Crowe’s Roadies — Luhrmann’s The Get Down is the origin story of a genre and, as such, takes us inside the process of creating and discovering that genre. In several of his films — but, again, most especially in that 2001 riff on La Bohème — Luhrmann excels at capturing spurts of creativity in a way that feels organic, like we’re watching inspiration strike in the moment. (His actors deserve a lot of the credit for that, too.)

In the Moulin Rouge!Elephant Love Medley,” when Ewan McGregor hopscotches from U2 to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes to David Bowie, it feels like he’s carving out that musical path for the first time. Every time I watch that scene — and I have watched it many times — my heart grows at least three sizes that day.


MOLIN ROUGE - ELEPHANT LOVE MEDLEY by dm_516f61ee342ae

Similarly, there’s a marvelous sequence in the fifth episode of The Get Down in which Shaolin, Ezekiel, and Co. are preparing to battle a rival DJ crew, and trying to figure out what each of them brings to the table. As Ezekiel comes up with rap poetry on the fly and a boy named Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) realizes he can spit rhymes in double time, again, it feels like we’re watching lightbulbs switch on above their heads. They’re whooping and dancing, exhilarated by the notion that they have superpowers they didn’t even know about. Like the “Elephant Love Medley,” it’s a moment infused with pure joy.

It’s also The Get Down at its best, which means that even when Baz Luhrmann's not directing, it’s still a lot like Baz Luhrmann at his best: infectious, reinventive, and an adrenaline rush. Is every moment in this series like that? No. But there are enough that are that it feels right to say: Yes, The Get Down is the scripted-TV version of a Baz Luhrmann movie. And even if it’s not perfect or fully focused, it’s certainly a reminder of how exciting it can be when the man behind the Red Curtain is in his element, dropping needles on all kinds of records.