Baz Lurhmann—the chic visionary behind Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby—is heading to the small screen with The Get Down, a music-driven Netflix original series that combines fact and fantasy to explore disco’s last gasp and the birth of hip-hop in the late ’70s (and debuting today!). Set in 1977 in the South Bronx against a backdrop of political unrest and high crime rates in the city, the show follows a group of local teens from epic dancefloor sequences to elaborate fight scenes and, of course, the titular get-downs—underground parties where people like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc, the original DJs, put their skills on display. We got the BTS scoop on this epic production from Lurhman himself, actors Shameik Moore (Dope) and Justice Smith (Paper Towns), associate producer Grandmaster Flash (!) and executive producer and historian Nelson George..
How important was it for you to be historically accurate?
Baz Luhrmann (co-creator and executive producer): My number-one motivation was answering the question of how a brand-new creative idea was born at a time when there was so little and it pretty quickly led me to deep collaborations with people like Nelson George, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc. The moment I started doing that, I really saw myself as a kind of collaboration captain. Of all the projects I’ve done, I’ve never done a collaboration quite as extensive as this.
Nelson George (hip-hop historian and supervising producer): Even though there are fantastical names and sound effects in the show, everything is based in fact. We did an excellent job of going to as many first-person sources as possible and relied heavily on their counsel so that the show’s foundation—the evolution of hip-hop and what the life of a young black person or Latino person in the Bronx was like—at the time is very on-point.
How did you get involved with the show?
Grandmaster Flash (associate producer and DJ): Baz sought me out. When I asked him why he wanted to make a show about this era, he said he wanted to better understand how this little, teeny-tiny city called South Bronx with people who had so little did so much for what’s now a billion-dollar industry.
Did you consult on the wardrobe and props?
GF: I would go to wardrobe and they would say “Flash, here’s all the stuff that came in. Take a peek, tell me what’s yes and what’s no” and I was seeing things that I used to wear! Mock-necks and alpaca sweaters and pinstripe pants and sharkskin suits and Converse—it brought back so many memories. Then I’d be asked to go to the prop room and go over whether DJ equipment was correct. The writers would sit me down and ask me the same questions and grill me over and over again like I was some kind of criminal [laughs].
The show is unlike anything on TV. Did you have to create your own processes?
BL: First of all, Netflix wanted something that you’d never seen before and second of all, and more importantly, because we were dealing with living history and living artists, and it’s a musical about music, there were no existing processes for doing that [for television] so we had to invent our own ways of doing things.
What challenges did you face along the way?
BL: Just the fact that the kids all come from a place where they look back towards ’90s hip hop meant I had to have Kurtis Blow teach them how to hold a microphone. It was vast, extensive, and a very big gamble given that the leads were young, unknown African-American and Latino actors.
NG: Look at Orange is the New Black. Who knew who those girls were until you pressed the play button? And suddenly they’re all global stars. They’re going to do the same thing with us. The question of diversity has been coming up a lot in the last two years and you have to give Netflix a lot of kudos for backing Baz’s vision. I think that we’re going to create another generation of stars.
How did you go about recreating ’70s South Bronx?
BL: We weaved together both old footage and footage we had created so you’re not sure when it’s documentary and when it’s not. But we also shot at least 50 percent in the Bronx on location. You know that rock that Shameik slides down [in episode 1]? That is a famous rock in a famous park where most kids from South Bronx have been and many have probably slid down.
How intense were rehearsals?
NG: There’s an area in Queens with a big open loft space that became known as “the dojo.” These incredible choreographers named Rich and Tone—who’ve worked with Michael Jackson and Madonna—supervised teaching our dancers and young actors how to dance ’70s-style. The dancing also helped them learn how to move in that era’s style, which I think was crucial. You could go into the dojo in the middle of the week and you’d see a group at one end being taught The Hustle and another group learning to breakdance. These kids literally went through ’70s dance bootcamp and you can see how much work they put in.
GF: We were training kids so it took us a minute to get them to buckle down and be serious. Month one was getting to know each other and then from month two on—and it took us 16 months to do this—it was quite serious and a labour of love.
Flash, did you have a hand in casting the actor (Mamoudou Athie) who plays you?
GF: No, because I first came on board as a consultant and then I graduated to associate producer. A couple months went by and Baz told me he wanted to make me a character in the show. And I gave him the “Oh, yeah right” look. Maybe another month went by and Baz told me he had someone he wanted me to meet. When I walked into the room, I just froze. I walked up to him and I said “Who’s your mama?” This guy looked so much like me!
And you trained him on DJ techniques?
GF: He approached me and said “Grandmaster, I’ll do whatever it takes to learn the techniques that I need to learn and I promise you that you’ll be proud of me when you see me on screen.” I haven’t trained a lot of people in my time, one because I was too busy, and two, I’m just too rough, too serious. Baz rented a little house for us and said “Flash, we’re going to make sure there’s food in the refrigerator. I’m going to put turntables in here and this is where you guys are going to train,” so it became a DJ house! And for months, it’s where I taught him to DJ.
Baz, did any films or stage musicals inspire The Get Down?
BL: I was influenced by all the films I saw in the ’70s as a kid which was everything from The French Connection to Saturday Night Fever. People think of Saturday Night Fever as John Travolta in a white suit but it was actually a very edgy film. There’s a rape scene and some of it is very realistic but it’s also musical and musicalized. We wanted to make The Get Down a cross somewhere between realism and what we were seeing from the kids’ point of view as magic realism or their own positive vibe. A lot has been made about the South Bronx that’s from the outside looking in and quite negative and it’s not to deny there were negative things, but the truth is that, ultimately, anyone I spoke to who lived through it said what they saw was possibility.
Did you find it challenging to connect with the late ’70s era?
Shameik Moore (actor who plays Shaolin Fantastic): It was a challenge but it wasn’t necessarily hard because we had all the right guidance from people that actually lived through it like Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about 1977 South Bronx?
Justice Smith (actor who plays Ezekiel “Books” Figuero): There’s a quote from rapper and DJ Grandmaster Caz where he says that hip-hop didn’t invent anything, it reinvented everything. It puts perspective on this large influential entity—hip-hop—as evolutionary rather than this thing that appeared out of nowhere.
SM: For me it was the fact that hip-hop, or the get-down, really started after the blackout [the widespread NYC power outage of 1977]. That was a dark day, literally, and to see the beauty and energy that came out of that situation was educational.
What kind of prep went into the big fight and dance scenes?
JS: The fight scenes were a little more on the fly, but we had a lot of rehearsal beforehand for the dance scenes. We were very supported by Baz’s team of choreographers. There were a lot of people looking out for us so we always felt that we were doing it authentically.
Did you have a favourite prop on-set?
JS: Books has a notebook that he keeps in the small of his back and even if you don’t see if in the scene, I requested that I have it at my back because it helps me get into the character. I would write in it in between takes.
Justice, was it surreal performing poetry and rap written by artists like Nas?
JS: When I got the sides [the specific set of lines from the script that the actor must learn that day] for each day, I always had goosebumps because of how beautifully written all the raps and the poems were. I had to not think about that when I’m doing it or else I feel this overwhelming pressure on my shoulders to do it right.
What do you think of the timing in the show in regards to community/police relations and what was happening politically then?
GF: With the tension with the police and citizens, the timing is perfect. In the early ’70s, the rapper hadn’t been born yet, so we were just striving whether you were a breakdancer or a DJ or a grafitti artist. And although we had a little bit of nothing, you couldn’t have told me then that I had nothing. I thought I had something. But with so little, we created something that is so big today.
SM: It’s a coincidence, but it comes at the right time. The universe aligned because it will educate everyone on the past, give us knowledge and perspective on the present and then maybe we can do a better job in the future.