Since its infectious trailer dropped in January (just try not to watch it on repeat), The Get Down has made every list of the year’s hotly anticipated TV releases. The first six episodes premiere on Netflix on August 12th, so they’re knee-deep in production right now, but on the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival, series director Baz Luhrmann sat down with one of the show’s writers and executive producers, the journalist and critic Nelson George, at the SVA Theater in Chelsea to talk about the show and his creative process.
Set in the late 1970s, The Get Down is a lightly fictionalized account of the birth of hip-hop among kids in the South Bronx, backlit by the turmoil of a nearly-bankrupt city. The show boasts a constellation of rising and established talent, including Jaden Smith, Shameik Moore (Dope), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Jimmy Smits (Sons of Anarchy) and a host of talented newcomers – at least one of whom was discovered “rhyming in the subway in the Bronx,” Luhrmann told the audience.
Luhrmann is quick to say that the show is not really about the birth of hip-hop, but the moments just before, when disco’s star came crashing down while hip-hop’s was on the rise. “The transition is so quick, and it’s just contained in this little geographic area,” Luhrmann explained. “So that’s what really attracted me: Yes, the pre-history of hip-hop, but also the way disco, and punk, they all lived side by side. They had this parallel universe.”
Appropriately enough for the man who made Romeo + Juliet, the talk took place on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and he laced his discussion with references to the Bard even as he revealed some tantalizing details about his upcoming show.
1. The show has a narrator, and his rhymes are written by Nas.
A host of hip-hop’s “founding fathers” serve as advisors on The Get Down, several of whom are also played by actors in the show. Grandmaster Flash, for instance is an associate producer and is played by Mamoudou Athie. Luhrmann and George also mentioned Kool Herc and Rahiem of the Furious Five, and they hinted at a much longer list. The artists have done everything from writing rhymes to teaching the young cast how to hold the microphone while rapping. That last task went to Kurtis Blow, said Luhrmann: “The politics of it, what it meant, had to be re-programmed, because their experience of rap was Nineties rap.”
But the big reveal was that Nas is a producer on the show, a “huge creative force in the production,” Luhrmann said. He’s also written for a character in the show, who “narrates [the show] through rhyme, through rap… on stage, in a sort of Madison Square Garden… It’s somewhere between pure rap narration and a sort of Greek chorus comment, and we use it a lot throughout.” Luhrmann hedged on whether the character is actually meant to be the rapper himself or a fictionalized version, only saying that he’s a “successful rap star in the Nineties,” but also said it started out as an experiment. “We weren’t sure about it when we began,” he said, “but we couldn’t do without it now.”
2. It gets better: The narrator is played by Daveed Diggs.
Yes, that’s right, the Oakland-raised rapper, who plays the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton, rap-narrates The Get Down. Diggs has already racked up a Lucille Lortel Award for his stage performance and a Grammy for the cast album, and he’s done stints on Law & Order: SVU and a few short films. The news hasn’t made its way to IMDB yet, but when it does, it’s likely the Hamilfans will swiftly become Get Down fans.
And it’s not just Diggs: “Actually, half the cast of Hamilton are in the show,” Luhrmann joked. With the show shooting in the same city as a musical loaded with talent, it’s no wonder. (How lucky we are to be alive right now.)
3. It’s got one hell of a writer’s room.
In addition to George – whom Luhrmann called “the preeminent historian on this subject” – the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adley Guirgis (Between Riverside and Crazy, Jesus Hopped the A Train, The Motherf***er with the Hat) serves as an executive producer on the show. The two have been attached for a long time, but Luhrmann also mentioned two other names: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, whose work as a writer on Friday Night Lights earned him multiple WGA and NAACP Image Award nominations, and Seth Svi Rosenfeld, a Bronx-raised playwright known for incorporating hip-hop culture into his writing. Other writers include playwright Radha Blank (Empire), Sam Bromell, Jacqueline Rivera and Thomas Kelly (Blue Bloods). “One of the great joys is the writing team and the breadth of experience and the kind of writers,” Luhrmann said.
4. It’s not just about hip-hop.
The 1970s were difficult for New York City, which almost went bankrupt during that time. But there was a lot going on that might not be on everyone’s radar. “We tell it from the young people’s point of view,” Luhrmann said. “Of course, they’re difficult, dangerous streets, but we’re not looking outside in. We’re telling it from the kids’ point of view.”
Telling that story meant expanding way beyond the music. Alongside the musical collaborators are legends from another iconic art form of the era: graffiti. “These kids risking their lives to tag these trains,” Luhrmann said. “They know it’s gonna be washed off the next day. And why did they do it? Everybody in that pre-history is doing it because when they did it, they felt that they were somebody.” So the production brought in legendary graffiti artists like John “Crash” Matos and Chris “Daze” Ellis as advisors. Luhrmann said the collaborators helped frame the story from an insider’s point of view: “All the people who’ve written with us and collaborated to tell the story singularly say what they saw was possibility.“
5. Luhrmann worked with Prince more than once.
In talking about his musical influences, Luhrmann naturally wound up talking about Prince, whose visionary fingerprints are all over his work, including the a capella version of “When Doves Cry” in Romeo + Juliet. But that wasn’t the pair’s last collaboration. “I was working with Prince on a song for Gatsby,” Luhrmann revealed. “It was a re-imagined version of a song with did with Martika called ‘Love Thy Will Be Done.’ It was going to be a major piece in it. We did work on it; when he was in Australia, we did some work there. In fact, we worked on it a lot.”
The song never ultimately made it to Gatsby. “It’s a co-owned piece, and he couldn’t quite get it released,” Luhrmann said. Ultimately he worked with Lana Del Ray to record the song “Young and Beautiful,” which plays at a pivotal moment in the film. But Luhrmann describe the memory as “one of the great sadnesses” he’d remembered with the announcement of Prince’s death last week.
6. Luhrmann’s sets are a lot like dance parties.
With so much infectious music, it’s not a shocker, but George reported from set that Luhrmann’s directorial style betrays some very non-directorial influences. “We’re there, and he’s on the mic, ‘Yo yo yo! Let’s go! Rock rock!’…It’s like he’s a DJ or emcee of a party at his own shoot,” George said. He called it “a magical thing, partly because the environment was not sterile…It was a party.”
During the Gatsby shoot, Luhrmann said, after the scenes were in the can, “Leo [DiCaprio] would come and sit down, and we’d crank up the music. It went on for a long time, and it got very out of hand. But I only did that at the end, after everyone learned how to be wild and crazy.”
“As Shakespeare would say,” Luhrmann added, “we are players. It’s not called a screenwork, it’s called a screenplay.”
7. Baz has a thing for cake.
Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin – the costume designer to whom he kept referring as a “four-time Academy Award winner” – is one of the show’s executive producers. And she was in the audience. She came up on stage to talk about working with her husband, and revealed something strange: “There’s a cake in every episode,” she said. “We’ve now realized that cakes are a leitmotif. They are in every single one of our shows… Now we have a cake-spotting. The first person to see a cake gets a prize: a slice of cake!”
“I don’t even like cake, to be honest with you,” Luhrmann told the audience.
“He doesn’t!” Martin confirmed.
But Luhrmann may have revealed the reason for his obsession earlier in the evening, when asked by an audience member why this period hasn’t been explored on-screen before. “I do not actually have an answer,” he replied. “Flash has a great metaphor: He says everyone wants to know about the cake, but no one wants to know about the recipe—meaning everyone’s interested in the Eighties…but no one’s interested in how it actually came about.” So maybe The Get Down is Luhrmann’s attempt to show the cake, and the recipe, too.