At first glance, Baz Luhrmann’s involvement in Netflix’s ode to the 1970s Bronx, The Get Down, may seem unlikely given his Australian roots which are decidedly different than those who grew up during an era when the graffiti scene was thriving and hip-hop as we know it today was starting to emerge thanks to the exploits of Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa.
“I’m probably the least obvious person you might think to be curating and trying to get this story told,” Luhrmann said.
Luhrmann was wise to bring on notable consultants and producers to help give his vision a dose of reality – with the likes of Nas, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow and author Nelson George – all contributing in various capacities.
“I look at this white guy from Australia and I say, ‘Why?’” Flash recalled. “‘Why do you want to do this, and why should I do it with you?’”
Despite the early reluctance, the collaborative nature of the show is what Luhrmann views as its greater strength.
“I would never have believed two years ago that my days and nights, seven days a week, would have been absorbed in this gigantic collaboration,” he said. “I’ve never worked with so many people, and I’ve done a lot of things.”
The Get Down reportedly costs $10 million USD an episode – making it the most expensive Netflix show ever produced. While much of the budget has seemingly gone to era-correct costumes, elaborate dance numbers, licensing classic 1970s music and shooting on location in The Bronx, we wanted to get a sense just how real the show really is.
For those that have watched the first three episodes of the series, one of the most notable explorations outside of the birth of hip-hop is the convergence of gang culture and a drug trade fueled by a “party all night” attitude stemming from disco fever.
The Get Down’s “Savage Warlords” are inspired by the real-world exploits of the “Savage Nomads” who stalked around areas of the Bronx and Washington Heights in the 1970s in their signature denim jackets with white patches and flaming skulls on the back.
Unlike other gangs of the era, the Nomads weren’t a one-race gang and were comprised of African Americans, Latins and Whites.
“A whole different time and place,” recalls filmmaker, Gary Weis, whose 1979 film, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, chronicled gang warfare in the South Bronx. “It was kind of like Dresden when I filmed there.”
“They think they’re outlaws. I think they’re bums,” says Detective Bob Werner of NYPD’s Youth Gang Task Force in the film’s opening segment.
In addition to the Savage Nomads, other prominent Bronx street gangs at the times included the Savage Skulls from Hunts Point, Caribbean Kings, Seven Immortals, Glory Stompers, Blue Diamonds, Black Cats and Black Spades.
Photographer Jean-Pierre Laffont recounted the journey into Savage Skulls territory for a series of photographs, writing, “During the summer of 1972 the name of this gang made headlines in New York City newspapers more than once, as they violently settled scores with drug dealers. Gang members were easy to spot on Fox Street, one of the main streets in the Bronx, but one still had to approach them. For a first encounter I didn’t want to be alone, so I went with a cameraman friend. From the supposed safety of our car, we initiated contact with several of them with surprising ease. They quickly had numerous questions for us: they wanted to know who we were, where we came from, what we wanted, where our images would be printed, and if we worked in black-and-white or color. When we assured them we weren’t reporters from the American press, they invited us to follow them; we did, and they introduced us to about 20 other gang members. The majority of them were between 13 and 20 years old of Puerto Rican origin, and Spanish went fast among them. Right off the bat, they told us they didn’t want to be questioned about their lives or their gang, but said we could film and photograph them.”
Aside from the gang scrawls which litter the buildings and residences, the graffiti element of The Get Down is channeled through the character, Dizzee, who is played by a Krylon-can-wielding Jaden Smith.
Five years removed from the legendary 1971 The New York Times article which shined a light on the pervasive medium and one of the writers at the forefront of graffiti’s explosion, TAKI 183, Dizzee’s character is actually an amalgamation of two real-life Bronx writers, Crash and Daze, who respectively attended New York’s High School of Art and Design and Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Administration.
Daze recalls getting the call from Luhrmann, saying, “he reached out to us, because he realized that in terms of the musical aspect of the show he had consultants that covered that part such as Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow and I think Nas was involved in some way. He had that aspect but he didn’t have anyone representing that particular era which was from the mid 70s on and he realized that was an important part of the show as well. At that point, he reached out to us through a scriptwriter that wrote for the show.”
Most notably, when he was 14, Daze did his first subway car in the 215th Street train yard, where the CC trains (now the C train) were stored.
“It was wintertime, in the middle of the day,” says Daze. “I didn’t realize that paint freezes, like anything else. I had four cans and I’m painting and it’s becoming really drippy because it’s frozen. I couldn’t really do much. I ended up getting chased out.”
Dizze’s wardrobe – specifically his Lee jacket with colorful embellishment on the back – is also an homage to a real-life writer, Lady Pink (dubbed the First Lady of Graffiti), who actually painted the piece on the back of Jaden Smith’s jacket.
There is also a notable reference to “Writer’s Bench” in the premiere episode which is rooted in truth. Located at the 149th Street Grand Concourse subway station in The Bronx, on the 2 and 5 IRT lines, it served as a meeting place for graffiti writers much in the same way that U.G.A. (United Graffiti Artists) looked to cultivate the artistic talents of those with a graffiti pedigree who were looking to get into galleries.
The Kung Fu
Much of the convergence of hip-hop culture and kung-fu/martial arts is best attributed to the work of the Wu-Tang Clan who immortalized their love for the discipline on group projects and solo ventures alike.
When viewing the show, the various directors who have helped Luhrmann achieve his vision – Ed Bianchi, Andrew Bernstein and Michael Dinner – all offer varying homages to kung-fu thanks to dance flourishes which blur the lines between disco, b-boying and Shaolin fighting, and the various audible “whooshes” that punctuate certain character’s movements.
Notable kung-fu flicks of the era included The Big Boss, King Boxer, Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon.
In an interview with choreographers Rich + Tone Talauega, they pointed to Michael Jackson, James Brown and Bruce Lee as all major influences on how they have characters move their bodies.
The Rap Pioneers
One of the most notable instances of just how infantile hip-hop was at the time, Grandmaster Flash gives Zeke, Shaolin, and his friends a purple crayon and tells them that they have 24 hours to unlock the mystery of “The Get Down” – a term used to illustrate how DJ’s and emcees at the time created music without the aid of drum machines and samplers and had to perform phonograph surgery to avoid “the wackness.”
While the show as a whole is a work of fiction, Flash’s usage of the crayon proved vital to keeping the party going without letting the energy of a party die down and is rooted in fact.
“After I figured out the turntable, I would mark the record with a grease pencil or a crayon, where the break lived, and all the intersecting points,” Grandmaster Flash remembers. “So when I wanted to repeat a break all I had to do is just watch how many times the intersecting line passed the tone arm.”
For those that have watched the pilot episode, Les Inferno proved to be a vital piece in introducing Zeke and his friends to Shaolin Fantastic who of course unlocked the underground world of hip-hop for the group.
While there was an actual club called “Inferno” which existed in Manhattan during the era, Les Inferno was actually based on Club 731.
Author and producer on the show, Nelson George – a lifelong resident of Brooklyn – said of the club which offered African American men and women the idea of upward mobility “by doing the hustle and wearing these clothes, we were elevating ourselves somehow. There was definitely a sense of upward mobility embodied there.”
Producer Nelson George says that 50 percent of the series was filmed on location – utilizing notable relics of yesteryear like the Andrew Freedman Home, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue (where Kool Herc hosted the world’s first hip-hop party) and St. Mary’s Park – while the bulk of the rest was shot on sound stages in a converted factory in Queens.
“The areas of the Bronx that everyone has in their minds [from the ‘70s] look completely different now,” he says. “It’s really kind of a lovely section of the city. There’s a lot of development and there’s a lot of pride. The Bronx is on the upswing and we’re going to be part of that.”
Having worked on other TV shows that called for period specific costumes like The Americans and Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll, Costumer Designer, Jeriana San Juan, was tasked with matching the sartorial trends of the ’70s with characters still impacted by disco culture.
To achieve Luhrmann’s vision, San Juan employed a two prong approach; sourcing items from collectors, and crafting new pieces with vintage feel.
“The Japanese are mad collectors of denim that is the bread and butter for clothes from this time,” says San Juan, while adding, “Basically all the costumes that are on the principle actors I’ve custom designed and made, and that was in large part out of a desire to create a very crisp and fresh and bright look for this show. That can only be done by very carefully, curating and building all those clothes. Beyond that, there’s a great amount of clothing in this show that is actually vintage. Thankfully, polyester is an indestructible fabric, so a great amount of the ’70s clothes do hold up relatively well. I used a large amount of deadstock vintage, which was incredible. Sort of the holy grail of vintage is to find deadstock vintage that is unworn and may still come in the packaging. And there’s a good amount of reproduction in this series. The ’70s look is very much in fashion at this moment, and that was a blessing because I was able to use pieces from Topshop, for example, or from Gucci. Gucci always pays an homage to its ’70s roots, so being able to use contemporary pieces helped further push the fashionable look that’s on this show and give it that contemporary appeal.”