I’ve been thinking a lot about The Get Down. I’ve been thinking about it since I recommended it to a friend last Thursday in between eating cupcakes and talking about OB-GYN appointments. I’ve been thinking about it since I read a good deal of the criticism surrounding it, and as I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on my daily commute.
I really like that I’ve been thinking about The Get Down, because I enjoy thinking about television and it’s been a long time since I’ve really watched a show that kept itself in my mind long after I’ve finished watching it. I like thinking about it because thinking about it means being critical about subjects and people I’m very interested in thinking critically about: 1970s New York, the death of disco into the birth of hip-hop and what happened in between. And Baz Luhrmann, I love thinking critically about Baz Luhrmann.
If you’re interested in the former topics, ’70s NYC and hip-hop, last week’s If/Then might interest you. Right now, we’re talking about Baz Luhrmann.
Luhrmann has a very identifiable style; Most people know him by his dedication to exuberant maximalism. Slow lingering camera shots and lengthy, brittle pauses might be en vogue, but Luhrmann has always preferred to make films that are loud in both look and sound. If he has an aesthetic, it’s draped in red velvet and covered in glitter. Or having dinner with Oscar Wilde and Madonna. It’s an androgynous exclamation point, and it just wants to dance and have emotions.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is periodization, and how we don’t tend to think of Luhrmann films as period pieces. They’re musicals (Moulin Rouge!) or adaptations (Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby) or a comment on nationality (Australia). The Red Curtain Trilogy (Moulin Rouge!, R+J, and Strictly Ballroom) are unified by their theme as a tripartite breakdown of film and theatre motifs: dance (Ballroom), poetry and language (R+J), and music (Moulin Rouge!). Luhrmann films are rich in this way, they are highly stylized in terms of their aesthetic and their techniques, but also in their conception.
Thinking of these films as period pieces (the exception being Strictly Ballroom), illuminates Luhrmann’s very specific choices of when to hyper-periodize and when to disrupt that periodization. Moulin Rouge has all the bells and whistles we associate with 19th century Parisian cabaret – deep red velvet, intricate gold and brass, black lace and red garters as well as the representation of social and economic contexts of that period. Yet to tell this story – which could easily have been told through music that would have been accurately heard in cabarets – Luhrmann chooses contemporary pop and club music, which act as disruptions against a periodized landscape.
In Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann sets the play (which most of us are overly-familiar with) in the late 20th century, presumably in what was present-day at the time the film was made (1996) in a place we can assume, judging by the accents, is the United States but with all the aesthetics of extremely Catholic Latin America. R+J is interesting because it’s not the setting, politics, or aesthetic that makes it a period piece, but the language. Shakespeare was readily adapted for contemporary audiences in the 1990’s and early into the 00’s with films such as 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), O (2001), and She’s The Man (2006), but these films updated the text in its entirety, leaving – in some cases – only mere remnants of the original plots. Romeo + Juliet uses almost all of the original dialogue word for word, and uses contemporary images to then bring Shakespeare’s language forward, into 1996, without changing its form.
Luhrmann’s most recent film, The Great Gatsby (2012) is an anomaly not because it doesn’t use the same techniques (disrupting periodization with contemporary touches) but because it does and it fails. Gatsby was not received well by critics and truly it was not a very good film. I think there are several reasons for this, one being that Fitzgerald’s novel is essentially very difficult to adapt. But I also think that this is one instance in which Luhrmann’s technique fails. His chosen period is fairly recent (1920s, as opposed to 1890s or 1590s) and we see his highly-stylized period aesthetic again in the flashy Roll-Royces and the sequined fringe of flappers’ dresses. Likewise, a contemporary soundtrack featuring Fergie and Kanye West disrupts the 20s narrative as per Luhrmann’s traditional style. However, what Gatsby does is fail to illuminate anything with his disruption. Gatsby (the film) does little to comment on wealth or politics or gender – all of which are central themes of the novel. Those things are there, begging to be commented on, but they just…aren’t. Luhrmann’s earlier films, especially Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet excited us with a sort of slight-of-hand, a clashing of period and style that, in our effort to harmonize them, changed the way we perceived both the time of the film and our own.
The Get Down’s biggest critics say that it falls short on historical accuracy and political context, or that it focuses too much on those things, or that it is too stylized. One comment I found interesting – and that inspired me to think about the topic of this article – was in one of the linked reviews over at The A.V. Club:
The Get Down is rigidly confined to 1977, so the show lacks the intentional anachronisms so common to Luhrmann’s work.
“Intentional anachronisms” are the “disruptions” I’ve been talking about. And it’s true, The Get Down uses music contemporary to the 1970’s, some in origin (“Do The Bus Stop”, “Bad Girls”) and others in style (songs performed by the show’s cast, in a 70s hip hop or disco style/arrangement), with the singular exception of one song sung by Christina Aguilera. (Interestingly, the show features Daveed Diggs, who is best known for his work rapping in a different anachronistic musical, in the role of a grown up Mr. Books/Ezekiel but he does not actually provide the rap vocals.)
Another A.V. Club article accused The Get Down of succeeding when it comes to the music plot and failing because it relies too much on the gang/politics plot. It’s true that early in the show, the first episode particularly, the plot is slow moving – especially during scenes that explore the corrupt politics. This is why the show has been characterized as “not binge-worthy” in era of fervent binge-watching. And again, it’s true – I could not seem to make myself watch this show in one go, as I did with Stranger Things and other Netflix shows. But in this new television landscape, isn’t that in itself a disruption? In between episodes of The Get Down, I found myself waiting until I could listen to a Grandmaster Flash album or read about Robert Moses before I moved on to the next episode. Because I wanted to immerse myself in this world – and a world as complex as 1970s New York, which in many ways felt both familiar and as far removed as 16th century Verona, is hard to represent with all the nuance and context it deserves.
I don’t think The Get Down spends too much time or too little time on politics. There were times, while I was watching, when I was frustrated because they kept cutting to scenes of Ed Koch yelling about graffiti when all I really wanted was to listen to Dizzy (Jaden Smith) rap before I took a moment to realize and remind myself that those two things are incredibly dependent on each other.
In many ways I think Luhrmann’s stubborn refusal to linger too long on the excitement of birthing of a new genre and culture in favor of reminding us that 1977 in the South Bronx was not an easy place to live for people of color is a way for him to successfully revisit his idea of disruptions in a way that Gatsby failed. Any attempts made in Gatsby to create a link between the corruption and greed of the 1920s with our own contemporary disparities fell flat. Largely because it relied too much on anachronism as a flash technique – which is why the Gatsby trailer was much better than the film. However, his dedication to long scenes of gang wars and political crookedness felt jarring in the way that they reminded me of what was going on outside the world of The Get Down Boys and how very real that history was – a fact easy to forget when wrapped in Luhrmann’s maximalist stylization.