BAZ Luhrmann looks like a character from a Baz Luhrmann movie. His silver hair is mussed just so, the aura heightened by a piercing gaze and creamy Australian accent. When he enters a room, he brings with him a sense of gilded mischievousness.
The same stardust infuses his movies. Romeo and Juliet turned Leonardo DiCaprio into a star and made Shakespeare cool; Moulin Rouge persuaded audiences that Ewan McGregor was an old-fashioned song and dance man, Nicole Kidman her generation’s femme fatale.
And while The Great Gatsby was widely loathed, Luhrmann’s blinged-up F Scott Fitzgerald flick nonetheless earned $350m and brought DiCaprio his largest opening weekend this side of Inception.
With his latest parlour trick, The Get Down, Luhrmann turns to late-1970s New York and the emergence of hip-hop from the dystopia of the South Bronx (pioneer Grandmaster Flash is an associate producer and portrayed on screen by a younger actor). Luhrmann is also temporarily forsaking cinema for the parallel universe of quality television, with The Get Down premiering this month on Netflix. It stars Jaden Smith (scion of Will and Jada Pinkett), Justice Smith (no relation), and Herizen Guardiola as scrappy South Bronx kids coming of age at the dawn of rap music.
Luhrmann being Luhrmann, the real-life story of hip-hop’s birth is more springboard than foundational text. The Get Down is a giddy rhapsody, brimming with song-and- dance spectaculars and Luhrmann’s signature visual dazzle. Has he captured the grit, yearning, and desperation of late-1970s New York? Not really. Does it matter? Only if you believe drama’s first obligation is to tell the truth rather than weave a compelling tale.
And because Luhrmann is not one for small canvasses, The Get Down is noteworthy for another reason. It is, by a very great distance, Netflix’s most expensive production ever, with a budget rumoured to be in excess of $120m (€107.6m). That’s about $10m an episode — more than HBO lavishes on Game of Thrones. Thus as Luhrmann meets the international press in London, it’s clear the stakes are high, even for him.
“I became obsessed with this question of how did a city on its knees create so much and go on and change the world,” he says, outlining his lifelong passion for hip-hop and the financially crippled New York that spawned it.
“The ripple effects don’t stop. It [hip-hop] is endlessly sustaining. Yesterday I was speaking to someone in Berlin on the phone and I look out the window at the graffiti. I’ll never look at graffiti the same way: It started with some kids taking spray cans and deciding to express themselves.”
From House of Cards to its latest smash Stranger Things, Netflix has proved a past master, conjuring hits from thin air. But The Get Down may prove a bigger challenge, with the series undergoing so many rewrites and behind the scenes reshuffles that insiders labelled it The Shut Down.
In a departure for the company, the series is not “dropping” in one bingeable chunk; instead the first six episodes arrive on August 12 with the remainder to follow later.
That Luhrmann ended up de facto showrunner was a product of circumstance rather than planning. Initially he had intended to serve as “uncle” to the series, offering perspective and oversight from a distance. However, as writers departed and production switched from Los Angeles to New York, his involvement deepened. And while he directs just one episode, the 12-part saga is very much his vision.
“Everything is based on fact,” he says. “We mashed it up — but it comes out of deep research, deep facts.”
That The Get Down will divide opinion appears a foregone conclusion. It’s brash and breezy but not every hip-hop purist will appreciate Luhrmann’s homage to the genre. Then, it’s always been this way. The greater his successes, the more vocal his detractors. Far from flinching, he appears to take a bloody minded pleasure from challenging and subverting expectations — a product surely of his rough-house upbringing in a one-horse town in the dustiest depths of New South Wales.
He was born in 1962 and grew up in Herons Creek, population 312. His father ran the local petrol station and cinema; his mother taught at the only school and owned a dress shop. From childhood, Luhrmann understood he was destined for what he describes as a “big life”.
In 1977, the year in which the events chronicled in The Get Down take place, he ran away from home. Eighteen months later, now firmly entrenched in Sydney’s bohemian scene , he changed his name by deed poll from Mark Anthony to Baz, originally a playful moniker bequeathed on him by his father. He was only 19 but already it seemed fate had something special in store for Luhrmann.
This perhaps explains why he was drawn to the stories he weaves in The Get Down. Like him, these are youngsters from nowhere dreaming of conquering the world.
“You had these kids spraying graffiti on the subway trains. It was like, ‘When I see my name out there, I am somebody.’
“In a city that’s saying you’re a nobody — you get to be somebody.
“OK so it’s washed away three days later. You still get to take a photograph of it — to remember that you are somebody. There was no possibility of riches. That wasn’t why they were doing it.”
At his side in London is hip-hop writer Nelson George, one of the first journalists to understand the music emerging from the south Bronx was a new genre rather than short-lived fad.
“It was an underground thing, a neighbourhood thing,” says George.
“I lived in Brooklyn and was only aware of it because those guys were coming over to buy records. I remember me and my friend got the subway to the Bronx for a party. A van pulls up — there’s a guy with milk-crates full of records and speakers. It was [hip-hop pioneer] DJ Kool Herc. They really were a bunch of kids.”
The cast is largely unknown, with Jaden Smith the closest to a bone fide star (veteran Jimmy Smits has a smaller part as corrupt youth leader). The rags to bling story had personal appeal to Smith, reminding him of the trajectory of his father.
“My dad grew up in Philly,” he says. “He was very similar to the guys in the show. He had nothing. His father worked at an ice factory. We always say the Smiths make movies as a family, but before that, the Smiths made ice.
“My dad would drive around in the ice truck before he had a licence. He released his first single when he was my age and after that everything changed.
“We always remember the importance of hard work and dedication — those are our family values.”