In the first episode of “The Get Down,” the new Netflix series about the genesis of hip-hop in the South Bronx, there is a scene in which Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a jack-of-all-trades cool guy, finds himself on the wrong side of attention from a local gang.
He runs through the streets, a half-dozen or so foes in his wake. They chase him to the top of an apartment building, where it seems that he’s cornered, but no. Taking a running start, he leaps across to the roof of the building next door — filmed from above, he appears to be flying — clinging to its crumbling parapet and pulling himself up to safety.
The move is part childlike adventure, part superpower. And it captures the unusual, provocative energy of this show, which on the surface is a coming-of-age tale about a group of teenagers set amid the rubble of the South Bronx in 1977, just as hip-hop — before it had that name — was beginning to chip away at disco’s flamboyant dominance.
In actuality, though, “The Get Down” is more like a secret superhero story, one with black and brown teenagers as the heroes. Using extravagant camerawork and technical tricks that present the protagonists as larger than life, “The Get Down” takes a period and place that’s often approached with dutiful naturalism and sobriety about difficult circumstances and infuses it with light touches of magical realism and bursts of palpable otherworldly joy.
“They actually lived their magical realism,” Baz Luhrmann, the show’s co-creator and an executive producer, said about the youth of the era. “They had a magical reality.”
That this conflation of extravagance and grit has come from Mr. Luhrmann is no surprise: He is best known for carnivalesque music-infused films, like “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby,” which verge on the hyperreal. For this Netflix production — the first six episodes of Season 1 will be available on Aug. 12 — Mr. Luhrmann, who also directed the hour-and-half-long premiere episode, went deep and long, spending a reported $120 million on the production, which has sustained numerous delays.
The teenagers of “The Get Down” are all in different stages of self-invention — around them are unforgiving families, the burning buildings of the South Bronx, as well as the cultural claustrophobia of the disco era. Shaolin Fantastic finds his compatriot-foil in Ezekiel (Justice Smith), an ambivalent young poet who comes to realize he has a talent for rapping, eventually taking the name Books. Ezekiel is friends with the Kipling brothers — Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), Boo Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.) and the graffiti artist Dizzee (Jaden Smith) — and his love interest is Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), a church singer with disco dreams.
That each was, in his or her own way, something of a superhero was a subtext woven into the show’s creation from the earliest stages. “Even in the writers’ room, we were talking about, ‘What’s Shaolin’s superpower? What’s Books’s superpower?’” said Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, an executive producer and a writer.
Mr. Moore said, “Baz, he was very clear — the picture he created in my mind was a superhero.”
There is a mini-renaissance of black superhero stories at the moment, including the coming Netflix series “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and the Black Panther comic book revival penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The movie “Captain America: Civil War” features three black superheroes, while “Suicide Squad” features two.
“The Get Down” is categorically different from those projects, but it raises a similarly radical proposition: that everyday teenagers — the show also anoints Hispanic heroes — imbued with obsession and determination can invent a whole new world and make the old one bend to their whims.
That supernatural approach to teenage creativity in the face of ruin had its roots in the role models of the 1970s, drawn from comic books and kung fu films. Those cultural touchstones fed into a sense among young people “of being something else, larger than life, someone who could best any foe,” said Nelson George, a longtime music journalist and filmmaker who served as supervising producer and a writer.
In the 1970s, as D.J.s were learning how to do more than simply play records, and rapping was emerging as a stand-alone art form, the first wave of Bronx teen superstars were being born. “When we got onstage we transformed ourselves from whoever we were into these pseudo-superheroes with microphones instead of guns,” said Rahiem of the Furious 5, one of the highest-regarded rappers of the prerecorded hip-hop era, who served as a rap consultant on the show.
And these transformations were convincing. Rahiem recalled how, as a teen, he would get harassed by the Black Spades, a fearsome local gang. But one time they arrived at his apartment playing a cassette of one of his performances, not knowing it was him on the tape. “I started saying the rhymes along with the tape,” he said, and once they were convinced of his legitimacy, “I went from being punked by the largest gang in NYC to the largest gang in NYC being my security.”
Similarly, each central character in “The Get Down” has an origin story, and a moment when his or her superpowers are awakened — for Mylene, it’s the performance in church when she subverts her father’s authority and turns a hymn into a sultry disco explosion, tearing off her choir robe to reveal a slinky dress beneath, her Diana Prince-into-Wonder Woman conversion. “Taking off the robe was symbolic of what’s to come,” Ms. Guardiola said. “Mylene is someone who felt different, and wanted to get out.”
For Books, its when Shaolin Fantastic takes him to “the get down,” a party in an abandoned building where breakdancers are controlling the floor, and Grandmaster Flash is controlling the turntables, setting up beats for rappers to make their mark on.
In “The Get Down,” Grandmaster Flash (an adviser to the show and also a character played by Mamoudou Athie) is the Yoda figure, a spiritualist and font of knowledge who’s training Shaolin Fantastic in the art of D.J.ing. When Grandmaster Flash is first revealed in the pilot, it’s done slowly. Up until that point, Shaolin Fantastic is painted as the show’s idol, all fleet moves and fast hands. But the moment Grandmaster Flash appears, the focus shifts — he’s lit from behind, forcing the eye to take an extra moment to properly register him. “The backlight,” Mr. Luhrmann said, “softens the image and is slightly blinding. From Shao’s point of view, it’s like the sun is shining from behind his head.”
That scene is a reminder that all heroes have heroes of their own, and sometimes a hero needs to be a student, too. What Grandmaster Flash is to Shaolin, Shaolin is to Books. Even in later episodes, once the two are working side by side, the original dynamic lingers. “Whether Books wants to admit it or not, he still puts Shao on a pedestal,” Justice Smith said. Books is also, like many superheroes, not fully aware of the scope of his powers. “He doesn’t understand what the art form was set up to do in the first place, which is to conquer the violence around him,” he added.
And eradicating violence, a superhero task, was very much a concern of early hip-hop in the gang era. “We had to pull out all of the stops to keep them entertained,” Rahiem said. “Once there was a lull in the excitement, there was bound to be a shooting, or somebody would get stabbed or robbed.”
CAN – Vitamin C
Throughout “The Get Down,” what remains consistent is that each of the young protagonists is still living a double life, another superhero tactic. During the daytime, they live under their families’ thumb, but at night, they become godlike.
In places, the show collides those two approaches into one scene. In the third episode, the blackout of 1977 leads to widespread looting. Through it all, the show’s protagonists wander through fire-limned streets in slow motion, carrying their looted haul from the disco club, Les Inferno, that represents everything they’re agitating against creatively and spiritually.
“The way they steal the equipment — it’s like the Four Musketeers breaking into the castle and stealing jewels,” Mr. Luhrmann said. “The slo-mo is to isolate them, so that the audience has enough time to realize their stealing is different from the rabble.” The scene ends up being almost romantic — here are children persevering amid terrible circumstances, and the equipment they pilfered may end up allowing them to realize their alter-ego dreams.
As much as “The Get Down” is a story about the birth of hip-hop, it is also about the demise of the disco era (which had its own set of superheroes), and of the age of Blaxploitation film. The proto-hip-hop era served as a repudiation of those worlds — it worked from the street up.
“We understood how small and powerless we were,” said Mr. Rosenfeld, who wrote graffiti in the late 1970s, and was a friend of Jean-Michel Basquiat in his tagging days. “At the same time, we had this need to make ourselves big and strong and tough and safe.” Almost everyone Mr. Rosenfeld encountered at that time had created a character for himself. “I didn’t even know half the guys’ real names,” he said.
How they set themselves apart was in their invented characters, their bold expression, their imposition of color onto a devastated, gray city. Fresh sneakers and crisp clothes were their own sort of superpower. Accordingly, on “The Get Down,” Shaolin Fantastic is impeccably turned out, in primary colors and forever wearing creaseless red suede Pumas.
Last month, there was a screening of “The Get Down” in the South Bronx, for members of the local community. Afterward, a pair of older women approached Mr. Luhrmann.
“One of them, she had this excitement in her eyes,” he recalled. She told him about her time growing up in the neighborhood, and about her brother, who she said once “jumped out of a three-story building and said, ‘I’m a ninja, don’t tell anyone.’”
A lot of kids she grew up with were like that, she told Mr. Luhrmann: “They all believed they were invincible.”
Rolling Stone Magazine