The Get Down’s Enduring Lesson for Hollywood

by Joe Hall

With Netflix’s decision to cancel Baz Luhrmann’s musical drama The Get Down, the show’s passionate fan base met its match in the emerging economics of peak TV.

But one of The Get Down’s most important contributions will persist, even after a single season.

Mr. Luhrmann pulled off something that Hollywood has otherwise failed to do over the decades. He told an authentic story about the Bronx.

In doing so, he transformed our borough’s place in the international imagination, itself a direct result of the Bronx’s earlier representation on film.

Perhaps no more damaging was the 1981 release of Fort Apache: The Bronx, the poverty porn classic starring Paul Newman and Pam Grier. Spoiler alert: in the final act of Fort Apache, we learn that even the lone redeeming local character — the angelic nurse Isabella — is an addict stealing from the hospital.

When residents got their hands on the Fort Apache script, they protested, shutting down production at times. They were upset not only by the inhuman portrayal of people who lived in the Bronx, but also the failure of the filmmakers to involve local residents in any meaningful aspect of the project to make it better.

It was the haunting memory of Fort Apache that shaped local conversations — beginning in early 2015, when The Get Down was first announced — on Bronx sidewalks, in Bronx shops, and at our Bronx-based film school.

Would The Get Down’s representation be fair? Would it reinforce Hollywood’s stereotypes about communities like ours? And how could an outsider, from a small town in Australia no less, get it right?

Mr. Luhrmann visited Ghetto Film School before production began, and he gave a clear indication that this time might be different.

He was clearly sensitive to his subject. He described his idea for the show as both specific to the late 1970s’s South Bronx (a kaleidoscopic portrait of the birth of hip-hop during the borough’s most difficult days) and universal in its themes (of kids coming of age, of friendships and hopes and dreams, of making art and finding love, of navigating and transcending the world as it is).

Most promising, though, was how he planned to make The Get Down. He discussed his vision for a community art project, where his job was curator as much as director. He promised sustained community input and involvement.

Mr. Luhrmann proved true to his word.

He rooted the show’s writers’ room, casting and planning sessions in the Bronx. He recruited writers, actors, and other creative talent from every corner of the Bronx, including the schools and the subways. He shot much of the show on location. He sourced supplies, from film props to food, from local vendors. He was a constant presence at local nonprofit events, showcases, and galas.

This was a radical departure not only from the Fort Apache experience, but also from a more contemporary, cynical, “corporate social responsibility” model (for example, of film ventures making a few public relations payouts to local organizations — what arts fundraising expert Brett Egan calls “go away money” — or simply hiring a couple of local production assistants).

By structuring production the way he did, Mr. Luhrmann didn’t just succeed in shaping the community’s view of the project. He succeeded in making a better project itself. He found access to new collaborators. He formed trusted relationships with residents that would yield feedback on his ideas and enrich the creative process.

The Get Down’s truth, however fictional, stems from the integrity with which it was created. The show’s aesthetic is practically a character of its own (perhaps to be expected from the artist who made Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby). The sights, sounds, and smells of a burning Bronx leap off the screen.

One of my favorite scenes is Part 1’s Grandmaster Flash party, exploding with color, movement and spontaneous realism. The feeling of this scene is not an accident. The legendary DJ — an early hip-hop hero who grew up in the Bronx — was a paid producer on The Get Down. This scene was pulled from Flash’s memory of an actual session.

There is no doubt that The Get Down has done something for the people of the Bronx, many who stayed ever since the fires of the 1970s. It tells a piece of their story: how they survived and thrived, and how what they invented — beginning with hip-hop — changed the world. It has re-painted the picture of the Bronx by weaving the experiences and talents of community members into its very fabric.

But I think The Get Down has done something equally profound for Hollywood and TV land. At a time when content is king and audiences are clamoring for better, untold stories, Mr. Luhrmann crafted a recipe for authentic storytelling that can be applied to almost any cinematic event.

In the end, the economics didn’t work. When Part 1 of The Get Down was released, it was Netflix’s most expensive original project at more than $10 million per episode. Mr. Luhrmann’s departures from convention were high-stakes.

A passionate viewer campaign to #RenewTheGetDown failed to persuade Netflix, and even Mr. Luhrmann explained he needed to be freed up to return to the big screen.

But we in the Bronx won’t soon forget the story it told. Nor should content creators.

The Get Down’s departures from filmmaking and TV-making convention are exactly the ones more of Hollywood should make in its pursuit of outstanding, relevant, authentic art.

Joe Hall is the founder of Ghetto Film School.