From The Get Down to Moulin Rouge: A Look at Baz Luhrmann’s Writer-Heroes
Director Baz Luhrmann’s style is instantly recognizable for its unique take on design, music, and cinematography. His films are known for their zippy cuts, flashy dance sequences, romanticism of romance, and anachronistic music. While his films are unbelievably beautiful, their unrealistic representations of the world are subject to interpretation. To ease audiences into these fantastic worlds, some of Luhrmann’s films feature writer protagonists who frame the film and interpret the events of the plot.
Luhrmann’s most recent project, Netflix’s original series The Get Down, features a fictional street poet named Zeke, who discovers a thriving underground hip hop scene with the help of his street-wise friend Shao. Together, the duo takes audiences through the origins of hip hop in 1977s Bronx. Hip hop elements like rapping, bboying, graffiti, and turntablism are featured with Zeke’s overlaying rap verses providing narration for the story. So far only six episodes of the first season have been released, with more coming next year.
Featuring a writer-hero like Zeke as the series’ narrator is a framing device Luhrmann has used in other projects like Moulin Rouge (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013). Writers are sympathetic protagonists that interpret the colorful worlds of Luhrmann’s imagination and give audiences an underdog hero to root for. By centering his films around the experiences of these writer-heroes, the protagonist takes on the role of the “unreliable narrator” and his perspective is seen in elements of the film’s style. The writer-hero’s experience dictates the tone of the film and the unusual cinematic qualities of Luhrmann’s films are understood to be representative of the writer-hero’s imagination.
So what does The Get Down’s street poet Zeke have in common with writer-heroes in Luhrmann’s films and what is the effect of featuring a writer-hero at the forefront of these cinematic works?
A Look at Luhrmann’s Writer-Heroes
Moulin Rouge, Gatsby, and Get Down all feature writer-heroes who are searching for their life’s purpose and express themselves by writing. All three cinematic works begin their narratives with the writer-hero reflecting on events yet to be seen on screen. Though initially passive observers, the writer-heroes leave their comfort zones in search of excitement and soon meet a street-wise friend who introduces them to a new world full of dance and music. The writer-heroes summon their courage and join their new street-wise friend in fully exploring these underworlds of sensuality, hedonism, and consequence. However, in the midst of all the careless partying, a tragedy occurs, and the writer-heroes retreat from the new world to reflect nostalgically upon the events of the plot; the films Moulin Rouge and Gatsby both start and end their storytelling with the writer-hero documenting their observations of the films’ events. Get Down, being a Netflix series, still has unreleased episodes, so it’s unknown if the series will also end with some tragedy, but there is significant foreshadowing in the show’s opening sequences.
Zeke is the latest incarnation of the writer-hero in Luhrmann’s work, and naturally displays some characteristics of the writer-heroes that have come before him. Because of differences in settings, the writer-heroes manifest slightly differently in the context of their own films, but there are some core similarities in characterization that can be traced.
Similarities between The Get Down’s Zeke and Moulin Rouge’s Christian
In Moulin Rouge, Christian is a young writer who leaves home to join the Bohemian revolution in 1900s Paris, an artistic movement celebrating “truth, beauty, freedom, and above all things: love.” He is swooped up by a theatre troupe as their newly appointed playwright and falls in love with the star of their show, a courtesan of the Moulin Rouge named Satine. The film features quick visual cuts, sweeping scenes of romance, a mix-mash of contemporary music done in operatic style, and extravagant sets and costumes. Both a romanticism and parody of romance itself, Moulin Rouge epitomizes the idea of art for art’s sake.
Although Moulin Rouge and Get Down take place in different time periods, their protagonists share common characteristics of the writer-hero. Both writer-heroes are drawn out of their comfort zones by the pursuit of romantic notions, both struggle with pressure from authority figures telling them that their artistic endeavors are not “realistic,” and both make their mark in a new world by demonstrating their talent on the spot at a crucial moment in time.
Zeke and Christian both romanticize love above all things and use dance, music, and art to woo their heroine counterparts. Zeke claims to be willing to die for love when a gangster threatens to kill him over a vinyl record meant to be a gift for his love interest Mylene. Christian claims to be willing to give up everything in order to elope with his lover Satine, writing the lines “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” The romantic ventures of the writer-hero largely drive the plot forward and create a dramatic conflict audiences are willing to invest in. The characters’ naiveté and youthful pursuit of love make them vulnerable and sympathetic to an audience who can’t help but root for the underdog romantic.
Both characters also struggle with pressure from authority figures telling them their artistic endeavors are unrealistic. After being persuaded by his aunt, Zeke gets an internship that almost makes him miss an important hip hop gathering and causes him to reevaluate his priorities as he is forced to choose between his responsibility to his future and his artistic passions. Christian constantly hears the voice of his father in his head telling him that by joining the Bohemians he’ll become a penniless writer and “end up wasting your [his] life.” These pressures illustrate the writer-hero’s struggle between choosing a life of creative satisfaction or choosing financial security. This conflict gets to the heart of every artists’ fear that their artistic ambitions could be crushed by the unforgiving loom of “reality.”
However, the writer-heroes are inspired when they visit the new worlds of their respective stories. Zeke and Christian are both thrown into these new worlds when their friends push them into the spotlight and force them to demonstrate their abilities live. Zeke is pushed into rapping freestyle at an underground open-mic, and although he fails at first, his friend Shao inspires him to make a comeback and deliver a redeeming rap verse. Christian demonstrates his ability to write verse on the fly when he joins his Bohemian neighbors in staging a play. These moments are critical events in the growth of the writer-heroes as artists because they are initial victories that demonstrate the characters’ potential. When the characters succeed, they get audiences rooting for them.
Similarities between The Get Down’s Zeke and The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway
Gatsby opens with the writer-hero Nick in a psychiatric facility preparing to write the novel penned in real life by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nick befriends a street-wise newly rich playboy named Jay Gatsby, who introduces him to the hedonistic underworld of bootlegger parties and raging alcoholism characteristic of the Prohibition Era. Unlike in Moulin Rouge and Get Down, the writer-hero is merely an observer to the central love conflict between Gatsby and Daisy. The film features an original soundtrack that mixes elements from both contemporary and jazz age music together to form an exciting score.
One of the most important parallels between Get Down and Gatsby is the friendship between the two male leads, and how they become a duo greater than the sum of its parts. Actor Shameik Moore, who plays Shao in Get Down, describes his character’s relationship to Zeke as “a South Bronx Gatsby to actor Justice Smith’s Nick Carraway.” Both the writer-heroes and street-wise friends gain a mutual benefit from befriending each other, as the writer-hero can take advantage of the social connections of his street-wise friend to gain access to worlds he’s never seen before, and the street-wise friend can benefit from insight the writer-hero can offer.
In Get Down, Zeke’s adventures in hip hop start only after meeting Shao, who gets him into the disco and underground hip hop clubs, places Zeke wouldn’t have been able to access on his own. In return, Zeke gives Shao a valuable vinyl record and provides help with Shao’s quest to become a master DJ. When Shao is given a DJ riddle involving a crayon, Zeke solves it and earns the nickname “Books” for his intelligence. Shao enlists Zeke to become his MC, and together they start a hip hop crew named the Fantastic Four Plus One. Without Shao, Zeke would never have found an outlet for his creative abilities. Without Zeke, Shao would still be looking for an MC for his DJ sets. However, by combining the powers of the writer-hero and street-wise friend, Zeke and Shao are able to start their own hip hop crew and begin battling other groups in the scene. Their combined powers give them new abilities and their reputations grow exponentially because they supported the other’s strengths and weaknesses.
In Gatsby, Nick finds acceptance into New York society after Gatsby invites him to one of the bootlegger parties hosted at his mansion. He benefits from Gatsby’s indulgences and is even inspired to write about his experiences after the fact. Gatsby benefits from Nick’s outsider perspective when Nick is able to provide him a social connection to Daisy and give him advice on how to carry himself when courting her. Like with Get Down, the writer-hero and street-wise friend complement each other and together the duo is able to achieve goals that neither could have achieved on their own. Without Gatsby, Nick wouldn’t have been able to find the adventure he was seeking in New York. Without Nick, Gatsby may have never been able to properly meet and court Daisy.
Zeke’s Uniqueness and Final Thoughts on the Writer-Hero
The Get Down’s setting in 1977s Bronx makes Zeke a unique incarnation of the writer-hero. Unlike the educated white writer-heroes of Moulin Rouge and Gatsby, Zeke comes from a poor neighborhood with an Afro-Latin background. While the previous two writer-heroes travel far from home to find adventures to write about, Zeke finds his new world in the underground clubs of his own neighborhood. Instead of writing prose like Christian and Nick, Zeke uses street vernacular to write raps.
Differences in setting and background aside, the three writer-heroes share characteristics universal to all writers, such as a sense of wonder at their worlds and a feeling that wonder should be shared through words and poetry. Although unsure of themselves at the beginning of their journey, the writer-heroes all exhibit a nascent belief in themselves that later becomes a conviction that gives them the courage to write. Their desire to share their perspectives with other people leads them to create passionate relationships with other artists and romantics.
The stories of these writer-heroes encourage audiences to look at their own worlds with a sense of wonder. From behind the camera, it’s as if Luhrmann himself is telling audiences that they too can interpret the world in a uniquely beautiful way.
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