Is 'Get Down' Creator Baz Luhrmann, a White Aussie, the Right Person to Make a Show About the Birth of Hip-Hop?

Is 'The Get Down' in the right hands?

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Complex Original

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"Why does Baz Luhrmann want to do this?"

That was the first question Nelson George, one of the first journalists to document hip-hop as it blossomed in the Bronx in the late 1970s, asked himself when he was approached by the Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge writer/director about making The Get Down, which premieres on Netflix on Aug. 12. Why did this 53-year-old man from Australia want to make a show about the moment in which the death of disco, graffiti culture, and upheaval in the Bronx collided to give birth to hip-hop? Why should he be the one to do it? What does he even know about it?

For anyone who has seen Luhrmann's movies, these are the obvious questions. For his entire career—from Strictly Ballroom to The Great Gatsby—Luhrmann has been a shamelessly maximalist director, one who makes brash, sometimes off-tone choices in movies that border on Broadway. His movies are unabashed musicals, but the most hip-hop he's ever been is the time he used Jay Z and Kanye West's "Who Gon Stop Me" in a party scene in The Great Gatsby—a scene that wasn't exactly praised. The question "Why Baz?" is multi-layered: first, it asks if a (white) outsider should be the one to retell the story of hip-hop's synthesis for the first time on television; second, it asks if Luhrmann's style as a creator is right for that retelling. 

If anyone knows the prevalence of this doubt heading into The Get Down's release, it's Lurhmann. Meeting the director at The Get Down's production offices, whose walls were covered floor-to-ceiling with photos of the Bronx in the Seventies, he knew the question was coming before I even asked it. "No one's asked me that!" he joked. But then he answered, perhaps understanding that overcoming this hurdle is going to be the most important thing in order for The Get Down to be positively received. With The Get Down, Luhrmann positions himself more as a shepherd for the truly experienced to tell their story. He's the show's curator, securing financing and bringing together voices from the era. "My job is to facilitate the storytelling," he told me.

Luhrmann seems insistent that everyone realize how collaborative of a project The Get Down was. The director brought in Nelson George to write and consult on the show, Nas to supervise the music, then added artists of the time like Grandmaster Flash, Rahiem Williams, and graffiti legend Lady Pink to lend their stories and authenticity. "Nelson was there, Flash was there," Lurhmann says, emphasizing that their input in The Get Down was of the utmost importance. "But I had to be the conductor." The end result, according to Luhrmann and George, and really, any of the actors starring in The Get Down, is that even though "From Baz Luhrmann" adorns the posters, the show was made more by committee, under the guidance of an experienced creator. A creator who, Luhrmann make sure to note, has the name recognition to get something like this made. "To get a show at this level, with unknown young people, financed is not that easy," he says. Netflix reportedly sunk $120 million into The Get Down, the most money that's ever been spent on a TV show. It's likely they wouldn't have been as invested without someone like Luhrmann at the helm.

Then there's the other side of the question: even if you accept that Baz Luhrmann can make a show about the birth of hip-hop, is his style appropriate for the story? Having seen the first few episodes, The Get Down is undoubtedly a Baz production. An apparently direct descendent of movies like Grease, it's frenetic, colorful, loud, and sometimes even disorienting—the first 15 minutes of the premiere episode contains so many moving parts and cuts, it's bound to make heads spin and viewers press pause, even bail. But according to the creators, that was the only way. Grease may not be the thing that comes to mind when you think hip-hop, but Luhrmann and co. didn't want to paint this story in gritty, dark grays. "The Seventies cinema of New York—Dog Day Afternoon, Shaft—that's been done," says George. "People have tried to redo that aesthetic and have failed." To that, Lurhmann added, "Nelson has often said yes, it was dangerous and edgy, but we all remember the possibility, not the negative."

Luhrmann and George also argue that the show's tone and style is meant to imitate the mash-up culture of hip-hop's beginnings. "Fundamentally, hip-hop is a collage," Luhrmann says. "I tried to find that style to get everyone's attention. 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." The collision of multiculturalism, disco, DJ'ing, gang wars, graffiti, and a crumbling Bronx is the story of hip-hop—the genre would not have been born had these variables not met simultaneously. So to the makers of The Get Down, to tell the tale otherwise—as a straightforward biography—would be a mischaracterization of the movement itself. 

Ultimately, it's going to be up to the audience to decide if these arguments are valid. This is a show that's bound to be polarizing. Some will surely balk at the vibe of The Get Down, how it's quintessentially Baz, and that's understandable—Luhrmann's work has never been for everyone. But anyone blanching at The Get Down because of its creator is ignoring what actually went into making the show. After Nelson George asked himself that first question, he asked a second one: "What if Baz Luhrmann did this?" The answer he arrived at was that it'd be fresh, romantic, and remarkably close to the spirit of hip-hop's beginnings. Come Friday, we'll see if the world agrees with that conclusion.

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