A few weeks before the debut of Netflix’s new Baz Luhrmann-helmed hip-hop -odyssey, The Get Down, the show’s young stars are feeling a little antsy. In a -production office — part of a network of red-brick factory -buildings in Queens where much of the show is shot — Shameik Moore (age 21, best known for his starring role in 2015 cult-fave Dope) and Jaden Smith (18, son of Will and Jada, actor, fashion designer, author of spirited tweets) -spontaneously drop to the floor and bust out a series of push-ups — a ritual between the two. Justice Smith (unrelated to Jaden), age 20, and Herizen F. Guardiola, 18, the show’s male and female leads, roll their eyes and laugh. “How we all relate to each other in the show is pretty much how we relate to each other in real life,” says Jaden, back in his chair, before popping on a set of gold grills he pulls from a little Louis Vuitton sack. Adds Moore, -shooting a sideways look at Guardiola, “Well, she and I had to grow on each other — that took a while.” All four crack up.
If the camaraderie feels real, that’s because they have been together, mostly in this vast -warren of dressing rooms, workshops and soundstages (including at least two full-scale nightclub sets), since way back in spring 2015. Set in 1977 and with a reported budget of more than $120 million, The Get Down tells the story of the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx via these kids — Justice plays an -aspiring MC, Moore is a DJ, Jaden a graffiti -artist and Guardiola a young disco diva. The cast is rounded out by veteran heavy hitters like Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, who plays a neighborhood preacher, and NYPD Blue’s Jimmy Smits as a local power broker. A who’s who of hip-hop royalty, including Nas, who executive produces and contributes music to each episode; DJ Kool Herc; and Grandmaster Flash himself worked with Luhrmann, the actors and writers to make the show as authentic to the period as possible.
“These kids grew up in the ’90s, so we really had to teach them,” says Luhrmann, 53. “Kurtis [Blow] taught them how to rhyme, Flash showed them how to DJ.” Jaden was inspired to start exploring the neighborhood’s history on his own. “My dad and Jazzy Jeff would always say, ‘The Bronx is the mecca of hip-hop,’ ” he says, “but this made me really dive deep into what it means to be a hip-hop artist.”
While the main characters and the proto-rap group they form are fictional, the world they inhabit is richly textured with New York’s actual history. Archival news footage from the era —when the Bronx was burning, New York was verging on bankruptcy and disco was making way for hip-hop — punctuates the action, and actors portray real figures, from Flash to Mayor Ed Koch. “I think it does a damn good job of capturing the time,” says Flash, who is played in the show rocking the kind of underground parties that gave birth to rap. “We all started off as just regular people striving to become something, and that’s what this show characterizes.” (He also gives the show its title. “The get-down” was the DJ’s lingo for what would later be called “the break”: the short, rhythm-heavy sections of disco and R&B records that could be repeated with two turntables, driving dancers into a frenzy.)
The germ of the idea came to Luhrmann more than a decade ago, in an unlikely place. “I was in a 19th-century cafe in Canal St. Martin in Paris,” the Australian director says, kicking back on a sofa in an office lined with reference photos of graffiti-covered subway trains. “Oddly there was a gold-framed picture, an image by [early rap photographer] Jamel Shabazz, of these two Puerto Rican hip-hop kids standing there with their arms crossed. I looked at it, and it seemed like everything in that photo was original. How did such pure invention come out of that time and place? It was just a question I was driven to answer.”
Through the years the idea slowly morphed from a movie to a series that Luhrmann would produce under a development deal he had with Sony. But according to reports, the production ran into major problems — burning through two show runners and a series of writers with little payoff. “We weren’t making much progress,” says pioneering music journalist Nelson George, 58, the show’s supervising producer. Luhrmann felt compelled to take over completely, rebooting the process and moving the shoot from Los Angeles to New York. A major part of his vision was to -reorient the show around a young cast of unknowns. “To get that greenlit I had to really get in the center of it,” he says. “But I realized I could curate this thing, kind of like a DJ.” Preproduction on the new version started in Queens last spring — a protracted schedule that has resulted in Netflix’s most expensive project to date. “The challenge was, we were creating a form,” says George, adding that the show’s budget is a testament to Netflix’s belief in Luhrmann’s vision. “It’s not like we were making a cop show or medical drama,” adds George.
The scale of the production, of course, is nothing new for the director, whose trademark, in movies like 2001’s Moulin Rouge! and 2013’s hip-hop-ified The Great Gatsby, is a giddy blend of music and imagery. Still, it presented some unique opportunities. “I’ve worked on very big movies,” he says. “I’ve had horses out in the middle of the desert, 12 helicopters in the air. But what Netflix allows is this vast canvas. A novel like Gatsby makes a good movie. But with a subject that’s epic in its nature -- there’s no question that the freedom and episodic nature of television suits it.”
The result takes inspiration from classic New York movies like The Warriors and Fame, B-boy films like Wild Style and Style Wars, and even Broadway numbers, but feels like no show that has ever come before. Music, of course, winds through the whole thing — both period tunes (early rap, disco, salsa) and new music from Nas, Zayn, Nile Rodgers and more. “Because we had to create new mythical music,” says Luhrmann, “it gave us the opportunity to get contemporary artists involved.” A soundtrack album will arrive exclusively on Apple Music on Aug. 12, the same day the show debuts.
In an ambitious first for Netflix, the season will roll out in two parts — a schedule made necessary by the lengthy production. Notably, The Get Down isn’t 2016’s only large-scale, ’70s-set music drama. Vinyl, which featured a similarly glittery provenance, with a creative team that included Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, struggled critically and commercially on HBO earlier this year. It wasn’t picked up for a second season. Luhrmann isn’t interested in saying much about Vinyl (he’s friends with Scorsese and others), but he does accept the notion that the two shows have substantially different tones, with The Get Down being a lot lighter and more playful. “That’s not imposed,” he says. “It comes from the fundamental storytelling of these kids saying, ‘In a world of nothing, I’m going to use my -imagination.’ Imagining a creative way to express yourself instead of a violent way? That’s a pretty positive thing to put out in the world, I think.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.