Netflix’s new series The Get Down traces the origins of hip-hop music, beginning in New York City in the 1970s. Baz Luhrmann created the show and enlisted screenwriter Nelson George, along with pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash, to bring the story to life. Like Luhrmann’s films, The Get Down incorporates many styles of music, from early rap to disco to R&B slow jams.
Justice Smith stars as Ezekiel, a poet in love with his classmate Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), a powerful singer whose pastor father (Giancarlo Esposito) disapproves of her passion for music, but whose uncle, politician Papa Fuerte (Jimmy Smits), supports her. Ezekiel eventually meets Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), an aspiring DJ mentored by none other than Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) himself, setting him and his friends on a path of musical self-discovery. We met the cast and creators of The Get Down after their panel for the Television Critics Association, where they offered up 15 behind-the-scenes morsels about their new series, which arrives on Netflix today.
When hip-hop became popular in the 1980s, Grandmaster Flash wanted to tell the story of where it came from. With the press focused on presenting the 1980s on screen, Flash had no reference to convince them the 1970s were where it was at. Until Baz Luhrmann came along.
“Here is the sad part,” Flash said. “When we were kids in the ‘70s, we didn’t film there. There’s very few recordings of this, so you guys didn’t have enough to refer to to figure this out. Whenever you guys wanted to interview me, it was always, ‘Hey, Grandmaster, tell us about the ‘80s.’ I said like this, ‘Mr. or Ms. Journalist, if hip-hop was a cake, let’s call the ‘80s and beyond the cake. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how many producers, how many fans, how many companies got involved in getting a slice off the cake. What I can tell you is the ingredients of that cake. When I say the ingredients, sir, I mean the ‘70s.’ These are the years that Baz was interested in.”
Ever since the actors in Les Miserables sang their numbers live on the set, the idea has grown in popularity. Most musicals pre-record the music, and the actors must lip sync to the songs, so that it matches take after take. The Get Down sort of had the best of both worlds. They pre-recorded, but Herizen Guardiola still sang in every take.
“There’s a backing track because I usually go in the studio and I record it first,” she said. “But in order for it to look real, I do sing over my voice that is already recorded. Half of the time when I’m done shooting a singing scene, my voice is shot and I can barely speak.”
Ezekiel is introduced as a timid student, refusing to recite a homework assignment in front of his class, but it’s not for a lack of something to say. When his teacher forces him to read his piece to her in private, the poem reveals Ezekiel’s troubles at home, and shows his potential for becoming a rapper.
“It was really well written,” Smith said. “We have an amazing writing staff. It’s essential to the character. It speaks to why he is the way he is, why he’s headstrong yet afraid to use his voice, and why he cares about his relationships so much, why he needs other people in his life.”
The first episode of The Get Down centers on a 45″ by a singer named Misty Holloway. Misty Holloway is not a historical artist, but you might be fooled into thinking she was. Luhrmann not only revealed that Holloway is his own creation, but also that it took more than one singer to bring her music to life.
“We’re getting away with two vocalists because there’s young Misty and older Misty,” Luhrmann said. “Spoiler alert: in the second section we get to meet Misty. I won’t say where, in a nightclub downtown. She is a piece of work.”
The ensemble cast goes deeper than a short summary can include. Another significant character is Cadillac, a gangster working out of a disco club, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. In one interrogation scene, he throws a roundhouse kick at the fool who’s holding out on him, but Abdul-Mateen didn’t even know that made it onto the show.
“That made it in?” he asked. “I haven’t seen it yet. Oh wow, that’s cool. One of the stunt guys came in and kind of had an idea that Cadillac would kick the guy or punch the guy. I’m always looking for how can we make that more interesting? How can we do that and make it more dangerous but safe at the same time? The roundhouse kick turned out to be the answer, so I squared up real good and practiced it a couple times and said, ‘Okay, I think I’m ready. Do you trust me? No? Okay, we gotta do it anyway.’”
While Luhrmann sought to find new faces to introduce to the world as the stars of The Get Down, he populated the ensemble with veterans like Esposito and Smits. Smits suggested Luhrmann needed allies to bring his vision to life.
“He wanted people who were down with the program in terms of what he wanted to visually put up on screen,” Smits said. “Down with the program in terms of, I think, what Baz as a curator wanted to put up there on screen, and what all of these people who were involved on the writing team, the producerial team, were actually seminal parts of that want to express. It’s not happenstance that each one of the characters speak poetry in a lot of ways. We’re all in the south Bronx, but there’s poetry that comes out and that’s the way I remember growing up. I was around all of that, but to me there was beauty in it. That’s what I mean about getting down with the program.”
You would think with a show as epic as The Get Down looking for new faces to introduce to the world, the auditions must have been pretty intense. As far as Guardiola knew, they were only looking at two young women for the role of Mylene, and they were so different that she inevitably won the role.
“I felt like they picked me immediately,” Guardiola said. “I went to the callback and there was one other girl going up for the part of Mylene. We were complete opposites. She was super hard, from the Bronx, with the real accent. She was real Bronx. And she was nice, but I was intimidated by her because she just had all those things that the character was supposed to have. I brought a softer, more innocent vibe to the character and I guess they preferred that. It was literally two gos, the audition, and the callback, and that was that.”
Beginning in 1977, The Get Down covers a lot of major events in New York City history. Screenwriter Nelson George explained how historical events complicate the lives of Ezekiel, Mylene and Shaolin Fantastic.
“In our season, we have the blackout,” George said. “We have Ed Koch’s election as mayor. We have the Twin Towers and the Fiscal Control Board that controlled New York City’s finances. So the city is, in a way, an antagonist for our characters. Yes, of course, it has hip-hop in it, but as you go through the scope of the show, we touch upon all of that.”
Flash was initially interested in helping Luhrmann produce The Get Down and advising on the music and DJing, but he quickly went from consultant to associate producer, which is his current title. He remembered when Luhrmann brought up the idea of making him a character in the show too.
“Maybe a couple of months into the film, he says, ‘Flash, I want to make you a character,’” Flash said. “I’m like, ‘What?’ He says, ‘I want you to be a character.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right. Stop playing, Baz.’ Then he says, ‘We’ve got to find the right person to do this.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, good luck.’ A couple of months go by. He says, ‘Come down to the shop. I’ve got somebody I want you to meet.’ I come down to the shop, I walk into this room and this guy, I’m looking at him.”
Athie was so accurate in his portrayal of Flash that Flash even considered he might be a long lost son. “I’ve had my years of wildin’ out and being promiscuous and doing things,” Flash said. “I’m saying, ‘What’s your mom’s name?’ I’m telling you, this guy looked just like me. He has my look, his facial expressions, he walks up to me and he says, ‘Grandmaster, I will do whatever it takes to learn. I know I can’t learn it all, but I will do whatever it takes to learn the techniques that I need so that you are pleased when you see me on the screen.’”
On The Get Down, Shaolin Fantastic learns to DJ from Grandmaster Flash, played by Mamoudou Athie. In real life, the real Grandmaster Flash showed Moore how to DJ. One of the important moves Flash emphasized was throwing Moore’s whole body into the beats.
“Sometimes he’ll be like, ‘You gotta lean back. When it’s like BAM, you gotta lean back,’” Moore recalled. “He liked to throw my head back. He was like, ‘You gotta lean and throw your head back with it.’ That’s how he be doing it. That’s my impersonation, because that’s what he did.”
In addition to the real music played in The Get Down’s discos and boom boxes, and on top of the classical Misty Holloway songs, The Get Down weaves fictional music into the story. For that, Luhrmann enlisted today’s most esteemed artists to create original music of the 1970s.
“We have to create new disco,” Luhrmann said. “Later, you’ll see the guys get together, and they’re like Flash and the Furious Five. For example, in the disco, Nile Rodgers is working with us on those tracks. Sia writes some tracks. I’ve got a huge panoply of musical creators that I’ve worked with before and after. When we get to the rap, what’s so exciting is we have Rahiem who’s from The Furious 5 writing the raps with Nas.”
It’s clear from the beginning what each of the young characters want. Mylene wants to sing, Shaolin Fantastic wants to DJ, and Ezekiel has the makings of a rapper, once they discover that rap is something they can create. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II said there’s more to Cadillac than we may initially expect too.
“There’s a world where Cadillac believes that he’s an artist at heart,” Abdul-Mateen said. “I think he’d be a dancer. He’s definitely a songwriter. I think he wants to produce. He wants to be in the artist’s world. He doesn’t really want to be a gangster. That’s just kind of what his resources are, and he’s living within his resources, but Cadillac is an artist that is an artist at heart, and a spoiled one. He’s really smart. He’s impulsive and he needs some training, but he has a big heart and he won’t be double crossed.”
Since most of the cast grew up dancing in modern styles, they had to learn more historically accurate dances. In 1977 they would be dancing the Hustle, the Bus Stop, or breakdancing. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II even sent in an audition tape, in which he danced to James Brown’s “Funky Good Time,” Fela Kuti, and some 1990s hip-hop for 15 minutes.
“I sent in a minute-long video of myself dancing,” he said. “I was a student at the Yale School of Drama in my final year, and I just went at night, got a studio space, cut all the music, and just jammed for about 15 minutes, then cut it up into a minute of my dance moves for my audition tape.”
In the first episode, Ezekiel and Shaolin Fantastic look for a pakoussa. The pakoussa will make Mylene love Ezekiel, and make Grandmaster Flash teach Shaolin Fantastic how to DJ. Grandmaster Flash told us what a pakoussa is, and told me how to spell it too.
“I had so many pakoussas,” Flash said. “A pakoussa means a dope record, that hot jam. I got close to 300,000 pakoussas. Pakoussa is kind of like that special record that very few copies were printed, very few people could find. So the character Flash sent Shaolin on a mission. You find this, and maybe I’ll teach you how to play, pretty much.”
Stepping onto the set of The Get Down is a bit like stepping into a time machine for some of the cast. The interiors recreate the looks of a 1977 disco club, but the locations were the very spots that existed in the 1970s. Jimmy Smits looked back nostalgically.
“For me, it was a very emotional time machine, because I shot in some of the places where I grew up walking around,” Smits said. “The stuff at that church, my cousins lived on 167th, off the Grand Concourse, right near where that church was. So I had a lot of memories of that. The rubble field, which is in east New York, is where I went to junior high school and high school. Emotionally, it was a time machine in a lot of ways and one with a lot of mixed emotions, but joyous in the sense that we were telling a story that was beautiful and very poetic and very hopeful and aspirational.”