October 2016

Arts & Letters

Where did Baz Luhrmann go wrong?

By Luke Davies
Netflix’s hip-hop drama ‘The Get Down’ squanders its potential

First, there was Strictly Ballroom (1992). The tight, passionate dance drama burst onto the screen, introducing Sydney director Baz Luhrmann. Next came Romeo + Juliet (1996), a luridly wacky and at moments surprisingly beautiful bending of Shakespeare into a slick, fun, heightened pop package. There was a naffness to it, a wink of fashion-world self-awareness, a favouring of design over character – but it was clear that Luhrmann could handle big budgets with aplomb and style. There was an admirably out-there aesthetic to it, too, a kind of West Side Story on cocaine via John Galliano.

Then disaster struck. Moulin Rouge! (2001) cost $50 million to make, and was perhaps the first unwatchably painful epic film of the 21st century. (I am perfectly aware that many will disagree.) It signalled that this hugely talented director was misunderstanding what precisely his talents might be. Moulin Rouge! is like an attention deficit disorder fever dream, or a 100-flavour ice cream parlour where you eat all 100 in the same scoop. Everything got drowned: the soundtrack showed no favouritism whatsoever, whether to important dialogue, incidental dialogue, symphonic score, sound design or big set-piece songs. You could say Luhrmann is scrupulously, democratically fair to minutiae. But what was lacking in Moulin Rouge! was discernment: the ability to work out how an essentially threadbare but deeply elemental story might become human, by focusing on important moments where characters come alive, in their fear and love and anger, and which move the story forward. (The Odyssey, anyone?)

After Moulin Rouge!, things got worse. Australia (2008) is a triumph of bunkum, in which not a single note seems authentic. The movie feels like it ends five times (mercifully, you think on each occasion). I remember an aerial shot pulling out as a vast herd of cattle moved across the screen and the music swelled. Fair enough, I thought. Two hours – I can live with that. There was, alas, another ten to go, or so my memory tells me now. Peter Conrad, reviewing Australia in these pages, wrote of the film’s “giddy, garbled, retrograde kitsch” and bemoaned the “misapplication of [Luhrmann’s] zany talent”.

Just when you thought it was time for Luhrmann to redeem himself, along came The Great Gatsby (2013). As an adaptation of a novel that’s considered a significant component of the American cultural canon, the film is a travesty. “Energetic noise” might be the kindest way of describing it. One could almost say it is a wilfully shallow, perverse misreading of F Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholy lament. For Fitzgerald, spectacle and excess were the vehicles of sadness. For Luhrmann, they’re presented without irony, and with a bowerbird’s fascination with the shiny. Fun times, indeed.

I’m not criticising Luhrmann’s films as business models; that’s outside my purview. He doesn’t lose money, and the studios keep coming back for more. Now Netflix has given him and New Yorker Stephen Adly Guirgis $120 million to make a 12-episode series, The Get Down (six episodes available now, six to be released in 2017), a hip-hop origin myth set in a blighted, turbulent 1970s New York on the edge of financial collapse. The series focuses on the smouldering South Bronx wastelands, home to an emerging art form that would go on to transform pop-culture history.

Is it good? In a word, no. In a few more words: it’s largely awful. It would be easier to accept the show as fluffy fun – nothing wrong with that – were it not so riddled with woodenness, stock characters and moments of the exceedingly obvious.

In interviews, Luhrmann always comes across as insightful about his process, his aims and his world-building. Of his “Red Curtain Trilogy” (that is, Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!), he has spoken of how “it is fundamental that the story is extremely thin and extremely simple – that is a lot of labour”. This may well be true; however, it is likely that a lot more labour might be involved in creating a story that is, for want of a better word, a little “thicker” – and even, God forbid, a little complex.

There are moments of excellence in The Get Down, and they make for some vivid, toe-tapping fun. It is flashy and bold, and has wonderful musical set-pieces. The series makes use of historically significant hip-hop songs and delivers new ones, tailor-made for the story, that feel authentic. (New York musician Nas wrote many of the raps, and is an executive producer on the series.) The soundscape, in fact, is dynamic and at moments magnificent, though Luhrmann’s signature “drown-sound” effect is no less present here than in previous endeavours; he is a virtual stranger to oases of stillness. As a dumbed-down fantasia, a “mere” lightweight musical, the show has moments of moderate watchability.

It should have been something more: the richness of the era surely demanded something better. Instead we have an account in which characters often come across as maudlin, attempts at emotional substance feel forced, and plotlines, when not delving into cliché (the dealers, the taggers, the coke-addled record producers, the dreamers with hearts of gold), can get awfully convoluted. All this from someone whose starting model is “extremely thin and extremely simple”.

The Get Down centres on the journeys of Bronx teenagers Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero ( Justice Smith) and Mylene Cruz (Herizen F Guardiola). Zeke’s a budding poet (little does he know how his talents will help form a new epoch in music); Mylene, the gospel-singing daughter of an uptight preacher, dreams of being a disco star. Zeke is in love with Mylene, so his angst is complete. The two unknown actors are beautifully cast – we feel their charisma and warmth, though Smith can get histrionic and overbaked at times. They grow into their roles over the first couple of episodes.

Zeke has a little gang of friends, Dizzee ( Jaden Smith), Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) and Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr), who will form, as the season develops, the nucleus of a nascent hip-hop group. They’re obsessed with a mysterious and legendary graffiti tagger who goes by the name of Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). Shaolin is a little older than Zeke’s gang, and wants to give up graffitiing to become a DJ. He’s prescient: he’s been watching Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), the way he extracts tiny moments on vinyl, marks them with crayon, and turns them into looping rhythms. These are the bedrock of the tracks over which emerging rappers unspool their ambling, discursive songs.

Shaolin takes Zeke’s gang under his wing. In the early episodes he comes across as a 20-something paedophile grooming a bunch of 16-year-olds by big-noting himself. (You can see he’s a little jealous about Mylene’s presence in Zeke’s life, too.) The effect is oddly comical, as it is so clearly unintentional.

Whether it’s because subtlety is absent from the Luhrmann oeuvre or the audience is considered slow, everything in The Get Down is telegraphed and reiterated. “We all fall down, and we all deserve second chances,” says a character. “Something’s gotta give / so something new can live,” raps another.

“I got to do the right thing, and tell the truth,” says Ra-Ra to his parents. “Even if I can’t find the right words.” “Your mother’s right,” says his father, who a minute earlier wanted to beat him for a transgression. “Telling the truth shows moral fibre.” (I wish I was making this up!) Around any corner you can expect to be hit with some wonderfully cartoonish dialogue: “That fine little Spanish freak you was with the other night – what’s her number? C’mon, give up those digits!”

The Get Down is full of tonal inconsistencies. (The episode Luhrmann directed, the first one, is in fact the most incoherent of the opening half-dozen.) It does settle into its rhythms, but the first two episodes are so frenetic that they make the third drag. In one sequence, archival film is blended with re-created footage to depict the night of looting that took place during the infamous New York–wide blackout of 1977; in the following flea-market scene, where everyone appears to be selling their stolen goods, the pacing is so flat that you find yourself yearning for some more good old Luhrmannesque cartoon incoherence of the first episode. There’s a nightclub shootout, in which many people die, that has no apparent dramatic consequence, or none that seems relevant to the central story.

At one point in the fifth episode, dialogue that was on the nose the first time we heard it is re-used in a voice-over that runs over a montage. The effect is like being hit about the ears with a sand-filled wet sock. In one thread, a lot of plot real estate is expended on our heroes finding the miscreant who keeps secretly recording Grandmaster Flash gigs and then bootlegging the subsequent mixtapes. It all feels like a bad episode of Scooby-Doo.

There are some great lines here and there: “Control the crowd,” says Grandmaster Flash to Shaolin. “Move the crowd. Know time. Administer joy.” Such dialogue goes to the heart of what made groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five so dynamic when they burst upon the scene in the ’70s. Language was being used as a weapon again, in a way not seen since earliest Dylan.

But the good moments are rare, and it is a curious experience to see so much money spent on something that is largely inert and uncompelling. For $120 million, The Get Down should have been a whole lot of something more. What is troubling is just how little substance there is beneath the series’ frenetic surfaces. The manic scramble, which is nowadays, for better or worse, Luhrmann’s trademark, allows for no real dramatic build-up. The Get Down is an example of what happens when you throw a budget that’s equivalent to a small nation’s GDP at pantomime – and put said budget in the hands of a director who has a track record of making even pantomime painful.            

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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