Baz Luhrmann has never been one to worry too much about the historical accuracy of the music in his films; think Jay Z in Roaring Twenties Manhattan (“The Great Gatsby”) or Elton John in turn-of-the-century Paris (“Moulin Rouge”).
But when it came to “The Get Down,” his hip-hop origin story premiering Friday on Netflix, the Australian director was less inclined to take liberties. Instead, he turned to Grandmaster Flash and Nas, two pioneering artists from different eras in rap, to lend the production authenticity.
The drama, opening in the South Bronx in 1977, depicts an era before hip-hop had a name, when young people were beginning to experiment with disco, funk and soul records.
“It’s a billion-dollar industry right now. We were a crew of people that had so little but did so much,” said Grandmaster Flash, who was both an eyewitness to and critical player in the art form’s creation. Likening rap music to a cake that, by the ’80s was being enjoyed by millions, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said “The Get Down” is a celebration of the “bakers” who made it from scratch.
Luhrmann initially asked Flash, the innovative early DJ who recorded the 1982 hit “The Message” with the Furious Five, to help fill in the gaps in his research. Luhrmann, an outsider to the world he was depicting, was “an amazing listener,” Flash said via telephone. “He’s a perfectionist. He would ask me millions and millions of questions over and over again.”
Flash’s involvement with the project steadily grew. As a consulting producer, he weighed in on the music, timeline, wardrobe, locations and production design. Such input was especially important, he said, because early hip-hop was ephemeral and rarely recorded, and few early artists had disposable income to spend on cameras or other forms of documentation.
He also helped train cast members in the hip-hop arts (rhyming, spinning, dancing, graffiti) for several months in a massive rehearsal space in Queens. While the particulars of scratching might be lost on the average viewer, it was imperative to get the DJ scenes just right because, as Flash put it, “Putting your fingertips on the records is the pillar that hip-hop sits on.”
For Justice Smith, the 21-year-old actor who plays the show’s brooding protagonist Ezekiel, a.k.a. “Books,” having expert guidance was crucial. “It is this very peacocking art form, and I am not a rapper in any sense of the word,” he said.
Luhrmann’s goal was never to make a documentary, but to capture the spirit of the era, and he takes some considerable creative license in “The Get Down.” For instance, he eventually wrote Grandmaster Flash into the series — as not just as an influential DJ and hip-hop trailblazer, but as a kind of spiritual leader. (In a flourish inspired by the kung fu boom of the ’70s, he refers to Ezekiel and his friends as “grasshoppers.”)
Mamoudou Athie, a graduate of Yale School of Drama and a dead ringer for his real-life counterpart, was cast in the role. With a mischievous snicker, Grandmaster Flash recalled their first meeting: “I look at him and I ask him, ‘Who’s your mother?’ ”
Luhrmann also relied heavily on Nas, a rapper, producer and entrepreneur who emerged during what might be called hip-hop’s “fully baked” stage in the 1990s.
Nas wrote original songs for the series, including the music performed by Books as a teenager in the ’70s, and later as a (rather Nas-like) ’90s hip-hop star played by “Hamilton’s” Daveed Diggs. Nas describes the series as “a great history piece.”
“A show like this polishes off the dust from a treasure. This is a time period that basically birthed this hip-hop moment that we’re in now,” he said.
For Smith, who traces his first rap memories to Afroman’s 2000 hit “Because I Got High,” the series has been eye-opening.
“I just hope that a lot of young kids who admire hip-hop can witness it being done for the love of it,” he said. “In this time period, they did not see any professional rappers. They were just trying to promote fun, unity and peace.”
‘The Get Down’
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)