Baz Luhrmann and the rest of “The Get Down” crew brought a blast of old-school enthusiasm to the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday as they talked up the spirit of the Netflix series set amid the rise of hip-hop and rap in the South Bronx in the late 1970s.
The overarching theme that drives the series is the sense of unbridled possibility that youths felt at a time when most of New York City was struggling with crime and urban decay, Luhrmann said Wednesday during Netflix’s TCA presentation at the Beverly Hilton. Those social ills were even more pronounced in the South Bronx, and yet it became the crucible of a creative explosion that reverberated around the world.
“These young people did not (innovate) because they thought they were going to get rich or the they would see their graffiti in museums one day. They were doing it because the city was saying ‘You don’t exist.’ They did it because it was a way of saying ‘We exist.’ ”
Behind the scenes, “Get Down” had a difficult birth and stands as Netflix’s most expensive original series production to date. Luhrmann and others detailed the meticulous process of researching, developing and producing the show. Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash was enlisted early on to advise on his experiences. “Get Down” begins in the summer of 1977.
Speaking Wednesday, Flash admitted he was unfamiliar with Luhrmann’s work before getting the call from the Australian director.
“He said he felt like something like this should be told — this is the missing years of what has now become a billion-dollar business,” Flash said of his conversation with Luhrmann. He jumped at the chance to be involved once he realized how dedicated Luhrmann was to getting it right.
That’s especially important because there’s not much documentation from the time about how disco, DJ-ing and rapping melded together to create new art forms. Youth in the South Bronx created a musical hybrid by scratching and mixing on turntables because they didn’t have ready access to instruments, Flash noted.
“When we did this in the ’70s, we didn’t shoot it, we didn’t record it. This particular era can now become a talk of discussion,” Flash said of the series. “I’ve been trying to tell people (about the era) for ever and ever and ever.”
Nelson George, an author of several histories of hip-hop, serves as supervising producer on “Get Down.” George, who volunteered that he was 20 in 1977, sees the story as a New York tale infused with the music of the era. The focus on the culture gives the show resonance for today.
“The energy of possibility is a huge part of what the show brings,” he said. “One of the great things we had was this incredible young cast. You’re seeing youth, you’re seeing energy and optimism and dreams.” That focus on universal and timeless elements allows the show to offer “a dialogue between the past and present,” George added.
Grandmaster Flash and cast members talked about the “1970s boot camp” that was set up before filming began to teach the actors how to DJ, how to hold a microphone and, of course, how to do the Hustle and other fancy footwork of the era.
“They went through this boot camp of immersing themselves on every level,” said Jimmy Smits, who plays a Puerto Rican powerbroker in the series. He has first-hand memories of the era of “Get Down.” “I was just so amazed when I sat down with them, coming from that world.”
Smits later joked about the wide-lapel leisure suits that his character favors in the show. “My choices were ‘poly’ and ‘esther,’ ” he quipped.
(Pictured: Nelson George and Baz Luhrmann)