From “American Idol” to “Empire,” television’s decades-long love affair with popular music seemed unshakable.
But this year, viewers’ and critics’ devotion was challenged with “Vinyl” and “Roadies” -- two major-budget, musical drama series by noted film directors that hit more bum chords than high notes.
Now Netflix is mining the burned-out tenements of 1970s Bronx for inspiration in “The Get Down.” Created by Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Great Gatsby”) and Stephen Adly Guirgis, the 12-episode series follows a group of teens in 1977 as they come of age during hip-hop’s birth in New York’s blighted outer boroughs.
A feeling of discovery permeates “The Get Down,” and it’s perhaps because Luhrmann picked a subject that hasn’t yet been mined to death by film and TV. Rock biopics have told the story of everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Joy Division, but hip-hop has been less explored. It’s a younger genre, therefore it’s beginnings have only just started to become the thing that we miss.
The series, which premieres Friday, comes on the heels of HBO’s widely panned “Vinyl.” Co-created by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, it was a record mogul’s wide-lapelled stroll through the dawn of punk rock in 1970s New York. “Vinyl” cost a reported $100 million to make, and was canceled after one season.
Cameron Crowe’s “Roadies” on Showtime was also recently released to little fanfare. It’s a starry-eyed look at the men and women behind the scenes who make the rock concert magic happen. Though set in the present, the backstage culture of “Roadies” curiously resembles that of Crowe’s film “Almost Famous,” a movie also based in the boomer-beloved rock scene of the 1970s.
Both shows were scorned by critics and social media alike for relying on old clichés -- groupies, drugs, mirrored sunglasses – rather than original story lines or complex characters. Plus no one really wanted to hear, “It’s all about the music, man!,” one more time, and both of the shows couldn’t stop saying it.
The assumption that there would be a demand for such shows, however, is understandable. Rock itself has been in an uninspired rut for some time as pop and EDM have replaced guitar, bass and drums as the music of choice for millennials, an both series tried to rekindle the fire. Rock was popular music’s apex, they seemed to insist, so why move on?
Which brings us to hip-hop.
“The Get Down” has plenty of problems: pacing, messy story lines and stiff acting by new faces. But when it comes to capturing the spirit and essence of a critical era in music’s evolution, it works where “Vinyl” and “Roadies” did not.
The success of films about rap history like “Straight Outta Compton” and shows on the industry like “Empire” signal a shift. FX’s “Atlanta,” a series about two cousins’ climb to the top of that city’s rap scene, premieres in September and “Star,” a musical drama featuring an all-girl R&B group, was picked up earlier this year by Fox.
“The Get Down” cost a reported $120 million to make, and one has to wonder how much of that budget went to music licensing. As he did with “Moulin Rouge” and “Gatsby,” Luhrmann makes the soundtrack a crucial part of each episode. Hits by Earth, Wind & Fire and Donna Summer permeate the hot summer Bronx air, while songs such as “Superfly” and “Turn the Beat Around” inspire impromptu dance numbers by gangsters in clubs and girls at the hair salon.
The brilliance here is that many of the disco and soul songs played throughout “The Get Down” are tracks that were sampled over and over again by hip-hop’s pioneering DJs. They were cornerstones of early rap until sampling gave way to the production of original beats. Luhrmann does his own mixing and sampling here, splicing obscure funk and soul with AM disco hits and modern-day material.
Respected rap veteran Nas wrote songs and lyrics specifically for “The Get Down” (he’s listed as an executive producer) and the show’s lead character Zeke (played by Justice Smith) possesses a rap style and back story similar to that of Nas. Zeke’s lyrics are about the streets around him, his broken family life, his place in society.
Such stories have not been the mainstay of music dramas or biopics in the white-dominated industry of television, and creators have traditionally turned to genres they knew best – rock and pop.
Luhrmann is renowned for his varied music tastes, but as a white man growing up in Australia, he wasn’t weaned on the music of pioneering acts like DJ Kool Herc or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5.
So to get it right, Luhrmann sought the help of hip-hop historian Nelson George on “The Get Down.” George is to Luhrmann’s series what Jagger was to “Vinyl” — an expert on the genre’s history. He helped provide context, nuance and detail beyond the old-school trimmings of Puma sneakers and big gold chains.
“The Get Down” is also willing to toy with the mythology of early hip-hop in ways that the recent failed rock dramas did not. Luhrmann paints Grandmaster Flash as an almost supernatural being, a Zen master in the eyes of his fans who cites Bruce Lee as a higher inspiration.
In one key scene, Flash (Mamoudou Athie) shows Zeke and his crew the new art of spinning two records at a time to produce one new groove. Manning two turntables, he shows his protégés how to pick and choose the beats they like. In essence, turning old, tired material into something exciting and new.
Find the beat you like best “and forget the rest. It’s history,” he advises.