The Upside of Down
To trace the beginnings of hip-hop in the South Bronx of the 1970s, Baz Luhrmann — in his first television foray — enlisted the godfathers of the movement and a talented array of unknowns.
In a black fisherman's cap, navy crew-neck sweater and black work boots, Baz Luhrmann looks like he's ready to shoot an episode of The Deadliest Catch.
Surveying the scene in front of him, he appears to be simultaneously exhausted and energized, running his hand repeatedly through his mostly white hair and across his five-day-old stubble. Dark circles are visible beneath his eyes.
Luhrmann isn't navigating the high seas but a makeshift nightclub at Broadway Stages in Queens, New York, where episode 10 of Netflix's new series The Get Down is under way. The year is 1979. The place is the South Bronx. And hip-hop teeters on the edge of obscurity and cultural phenomenon.
About 100 extras groove on the sweaty dance floor while a group of teen proto-rappers — played by Justice Smith, Jaden Smith (no relation), Skylan Brooks and Tremaine Brown Jr. — jump about on stage, sporting unruly afros and red-satin baseball jackets, waving their mics in the air.
Shameik Moore, best known as the star of the Sundance breakout Dope, scratches and spins the new sound that soon would reign as the dominant musical genre. Fog machines pump out a fine mist severed only by strobe light flashes and fist pumps.
Though the acclaimed film director behind Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby is used to multitasking, nothing has quite prepared him for the pace of episodic television, where he finds himself for the first time in his career. As the series' co-creator and executive producer, Luhrmann spawned The Get Down's entire season-one story arc — spanning from 1977 to the dawn of the '80s — and oversees some 50 pages of script per week.
That's a far cry from his typical tempo of 12 months of developing a 120-page film script before production.
Since shooting began in June 2015, he has been "utterly consumed," signing off on all of the sets and costumes and, along with composer Elliott Wheeler, generating the musical ideas. He also works closely with choreographer-associate producers Rich and Tone Talauega, the duo behind Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl performance, and is simultaneously supervising postproduction on the previously shot episodes, sitting in the color suite and tweaking the hues.
Oh, and he directed the 90-minute pilot episode, which debuts August 12, thus setting the whole Bronx tale in motion. On this day, he will work late into the night with executive producer and rap star Nas, mixing episode two on a soundstage. (Also executive-producing are Luhrmann's wife and longtime collaborator Catherine Martin, co-creator Stephen Adly Guirgis, Thomas Kelly and Paul Watters.)
If he's feeling drained, Luhrmann is not complaining. The story of how hip-hop became "the single most pervasive cultural force in the new era," as he calls it, has yet to receive its proper due on screen.
"Everyone wants to know about the cake, which for hip-hop is the '90s, but no one has been interested in the recipe," Luhrmann says. "I was like, 'How — in a city that was in complete disarray, on its knees, in which there was so little — did so much creativity just bubble up out of nowhere?' It didn't. It comes from a certain place in a certain time. And that's what drew me to it."
As the camera rolls, Moore hollers to the crowd, "Everybody get down!" and the call-and-response begins to the thumping beat of the bongo riff being sampled. Luhrmann allows himself a moment of contented immersion. For 10 years, he has been chasing this very moment.
"It's the beginning of what became the music we know today," he says. "It's a completely new invention."
The 53-year-old father of two might seem an unlikely candidate to tackle a hip-hop origins story, After all, Luhrmann hails from Sydney, Australia, half a world away both geographically and culturally. His tastes run highbrow.
Outside of film, he has directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Australian Opera and brought his production of Puccini's La Boheme to the Broadway Theatre, where it nabbed seven Tony nominations.
But Luhrmann has always been fascinated with the genre. He frequently weaves rap into his period spectacles with an anachronistic flair, having worked with Missy Elliott on the "Lady Marmalade" track for Moulin Rouge! and Jay Z on the Great Gatsby soundtrack. More importantly, he feels an affinity for the technique of sampling.
"It's the philosophy of making something out of other things, collaging," he explains. "And to a certain extent, I'm kind of like that. I'm always referencing other things, but making something new, I hope."
In fact, collaging is a key part of Luhrmann's own process as an artist. Martin, a production and costume designer with four Oscars to her credit, is the interpreter of his vision.
"It's pretty clear in my mind, but I'm a terrible drawer," he says. "So I do awful scribbles and I make collages. I use all that visual material, and then she translates it. And then we argue a lot," he adds, laughing. "Usually in bathrooms and things like that."
Somewhere in the middle of the seven-year gap between Moulin Rouge! and another period love story, Australia, the pair uprooted the family to New York and began exploring a film on the Get Down era, a coming-of-age saga that would weave in such historical figures as trailblazing DJ Grandmaster Flash and Mayor Ed Koch and events like the New York City blackout of 1977.
"The inspiration usually starts with books. So Baz came home with a lot of graffiti books," Martin quips.
The pair also read Jeff Chang and DJ Kool Here's Can't Stop, Won't Stop, a seminal book on rap, as well as Flash's memoir.
Fortunately, there also was a rich trove of black-and-white photography from the era, most notably from Joe Conzo, who began documenting his Bronx neighborhood as a teen.
But the film industry was in its own state of flux, with studios increasingly moving toward big-budget tentpoles with global appeal. Cultural specificity was out, in favor of branded superheroes. Consider that a film like 201S's Straight Outta Compton, which chronicles the birth of '80s gangster rap, took 13 years to get made after one studio (Warner Bros.) bailed before another (Universal) took the small gamble.
"I could have made a movie, but the question is at what [cost]," Luhrmann says, relaxing on a couch upstairs between setups. "And more importantly, there would have been constraints. It's not a book, not a franchise. Who's going to finance an unheard-of story with a bunch of African-American and Puerto Rican kids no one's ever heard of?"...
In high school, Smith was part of the Acting Conservatory at southern California's Orange County School of the Arts, graduating in 2013. The following year he appeared in the Nickelodeon comedy The Thundermans, and he broke through as Marcus "Radar" Lincoln in the hit film Paper Towns, released in 2015. In The Get Down he plays Ezekiel "Books" Figuero, a budding poet who finds his voice when he begins rhyming on the mic. "This character was definitely out of my wheelhouse," he says. "Where I grew up, in Orange County, was the exact opposite of the Bronx. At first I didn't feel like I could properly embody it, but I'm so glad I took the role."
Moore got his start in TV comedies like Tyler Perry's House of Payne and Nick Cannon's sketch ensemble Incredible Crew, and garnered acclaim in the coming-of-age comedy Dope, which captivated audiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. A singer and dancer as well as an actor, the Atlanta product was a natural for the role of the street-savvy aspiring DJ, Shaolin Fantastic, in The Get Down.
Primarily a singer-songwriter until The Get Down, the Miami-bred newcomer, who is of Cuban and Jamaican heritage, scored her first major acting role when Luhrmann cast her as Mylene Cruz, a Puerto Rican beauty — and the object of Ezekiel's affections — whose dreams of disco stardom enrage her father, Reverend Ramon Cruz, a Pentecostal minister played by Giancarlo Esposito.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of Issue No. 7 of emmy magazine, on newsstands August 16.
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