From The Get Down to Moulin Rouge: A Look at Baz Luhrmann’s Writer-Heroes

Stills from Netflix's Original Series The Get Down
Still from Netflix’s Original Series The Get Down

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

Zeke writing raps on the subway in The Get Down
Zeke writing raps on the subway in The Get Down

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

Christian writing at his typewriter in Moulin Rouge
Christian writing at his typewriter in Moulin Rouge

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 his love interest Mylene in The Get Down
Zeke and his love interest Mylene in The Get Down

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.”

Christian writing verse on the fly in Moulin Rouge
Christian writing verse on the fly in Moulin Rouge

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

Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby

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.

Zeke and Shao preparing to become MC and DJ in The Get Down
Zeke and Shao preparing to become MC and DJ in The Get Down

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.

Nick and Gatsby at lunch in The Great Gatsby
Nick and Gatsby at lunch in The Great Gatsby

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I never noticed this before in Baz’s films, but the writer as subject is often too tempting a character to leave out. The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, etc.

  2. Yes! Zeke is the best incarnation of Baz Luhrmann’s writer-hero, and I agreed with your comparison of him with Christian. I hadn’t thought of Nick though, so your take was really interesting! Thanks for writing this, good to see a positive discussion about such a fantastic show.

  3. I really love everything Baz made, but you have to have a sense of humour and not be too serious to enjoy his stuff.

  4. When I saw Romeo and Juliet I was very impressed. It is one of the great versions of a classic story. So, when Moulin Rouge came along I was pretty excited. It sounded like it would be another really enjoyable film. I was so disappointed. The characters were two dimensional at best and the plot was a rehash of a thousand other similar tales and was not even played out in a particularly interesting way. Add in the fact that 75% or more of the music is reworked mediocre 70’s and 80’s pop music and I was definitely feeling quite let down. I could see how it might be a decent show in live theatre for the spectacle of the costumes and choreography. In fact, that is the way the whole thing feels, like it should have been done in live theatre where the small scope of the setting would be more of an asset. But as a film it seems very flat and predictable.

  5. Toronto

    I think Luhrmann is one of the all time greats, even looking at Strictly Ballroom you can see all his potential. He is one of many directors who have tried to incorporate music with film to show characters (or his) feelings more, and emphasise them, but the difference with Baz is that he’s good at it.

  6. Ta Neville

    Luhrmann is deffinately showing the film world something new and important. i look foreward to his next film.

  7. Always enjoyed his movies.
    They are visual feasts and the soundtrack makes them unique.
    And his storytelling is more than just alright, too.

  8. I usually like alot of different kind of movie styles but the idea of having auto tune music in a movie that is set in the 20s never really made any sense to me :/ And as such i feel alienated from the rest of his works..

  9. Baz is definitely one of my favorite filmmakers. I’m also a huge fan of his film Australia, starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. While Australia doesn’t contain a writer-hero like the films named in this article, it does feature a main character (Nicole Kidman) who finds herself in an unfamiliar environment and culture. In the film, Kidman’s friendship with Jackman enables her to acclimate to the culture through his extensive knowledge of the Aboriginal culture. Just wanted to point out this similarity between Australia and this article’s comments on the friendships featured in Get Down and Gatsby.

  10. Sparkle Forrest

    I have just seen “Gatsby” and the main problem with this film is that the director is really bad. The story is fantastic, the actors are almost all good, but the special effects are bad, the way the director tells the story is arrogant, the characters are unfocused, one never knows if it is a drame or a comedy… always the director’s fault.

  11. I like Baz and Scorsese

  12. He is talented and the great thing about him is that making movies is an art to him and he takes a long time to make the script and develop the movie … He is freakin good.

  13. Not everybody understands what he is trying to achieve with his films.

    Luhrmann has a unique style that is inspired by his extraordinary vision. He is successfully breaking down cinematic barriers and has pioneered a refreshingly unique style of movie making, one that actively promotes audience participation and the opportunity to enjoy a film on a whole other level.

  14. Everhart

    His films look like if they hoovered a line of speed and went to Mardi Gras…please no more Baz!

  15. Sean Gadus

    It’s interesting that even when Luhrmann is working with an adapted property (The Great Gatsby) he invokes the concept of a writer as an important character/aspect of his stories.

    Also, Baz Luhrmann films have really interesting visual identities. In my opinion, regardless of plot, their visual identities can make these films very interesting to watch.

  16. I personally enjoy Baz’s ability to immerse his audience in his unrealistic dystopias. He leaves the audience with the desire to be a part of such a world.

  17. There is a difference between artsy and being flashy. Baz Luhrmann is obsessed with wardrobe and bright colors, but he doesn’t make art movies.

  18. I’ve seen all his movies and I know his style, he’s simply unique. He’s not one of those directors who want to please the all censuring American audience, where everything has to be picture perfect and everybody has to live happily ever after. He’s to grotesque for the spoiled market where everything has to be pretty and nice. He’s just he, and the best thing about him is that he won’t change for anybody or any award.

  19. His pictures are moving and beautifully captured on film.

  20. I never noticed that Luhrmann makes movies about people who are searching for something, usually a different way of life and it’s so interesting that he uses writers/artists as people who are constantly searching for something new.

  21. sastephens

    One way to interpret Luhrmann’s continuous write-hero role is to assume that he is trying to show the average audience how to see with a different perspective, but rather I think Luhrmann true intent is to romanticize the perspective of the writer/storyteller. Writers are hardly ever viewed as the heroes in reality and the main reason they are represented as heroes in books is because they write the books. Writers run the world, they tell amazing stories and convey multiple perspectives at once and I think that’s what Luhrmann portrays in his several writer-hero narratives.

    I agree with your interpretation of this reoccurring symbiotic relationship between writer and protagonist/hero in Luhrmann’s stories. If Luhrmann really desired he could’ve minimized Nick’s role in Gatsby but his direction actually maximized Nick’s presence in the book. By expanding the time distance of the frame in the narrative, beginning and ending seemingly several years in the future, the movie portrays that this whole, extravagant story is from Nick’s scholarly, third-person perceptive, and while this is a giant factor in the book, it is able to be shown more explicitly in the movie. Nick and Gatsby both gain what they desire and same with Shao and Zeke in The Get Down.

  22. Matt Sautman

    I’m curious: the writer-hero as a trope has transcended from books to film. Is there any kind of trope related to film that has transcended into written media, or does writing influence film more than film influences writing?

  23. KKillian

    I think the romanticization of writers is something that most, if not all writers end up doing at some point or other, whether in a work of their own or in their own heads. It goes along with the way people as a species are inherently narcissistic. We all want to think of ourselves as the narrator; as the person in charge of taking the everyday or the tragic and presenting it to the rest of the world in a way that will qualify as beautiful or special, something worth outlasting us.

  24. I love the narrative style of Moulin Rouge and The Get Down. The fast-paced vibrancy of the scenes and the soundtrack play a crucial role in Baz’s style. I find the writer-hero trope very interesting as an examination of the director’s work. It was not something I considered before.

  25. Jonelle

    I think he’s AMAZING! His movies are the type that you can watch again and again and always see something you didn’t see before. They are very captivating and just absolutely beautiful!

  26. i think that Baz is completely talented

  27. Great, detailed article! Enjoyed reading it.
    So you’ve written about how the protagonist is taken as the ‘unreliable narrator’ and things are shown from his perspective.
    What I was wondering, was, (and I haven’t READ ‘The Great Gatsby’, only watched it, so I might be missing something obvious here) if the writer-protagonist there too would be counted unreliable? (Isn’t this at complete odds with his usual surface character of practicalness and straightforwardness?)
    Also, if he IS to be considered unreliable, does then the story (because we hear it from his point of view) have some degree of that same unreliability, preventing us from being sure we know all the events that happened as ‘fact’ (as in ‘The Usual Suspects’, for example)?
    Once again, great read. 🙂

  28. Munjeera

    Love the Get Down. I have never seen Baz’s other work.

  29. daniellegreen624

    I’ve always found Baz to be somewhat obnoxious with some of his plot devices and choice of actors. However, I recognize that he pay careful attention to character development. He treats them like people that exist outside of a film, which is respectable. I haven’t seen The Get Down yet, but this article has motivated me to. Thank you!

  30. It’s almost as if Lurhmann is telling his story through the experience of others. Relating a directors experience in Hollywood to a closeted authors caught up in the buzz of the 1920’s. He is the writer struggling through a script until he can translate the beauty and passion. Then he rolls the credits.

  31. I enjoy much of Luhrman’s work, and love The Great Gatsby, but i was disappointed by The Get Down. One of my major gripes with it is in fact the hero, i found the character to be extremely one-dimensional, and a number of the performances, including Justice Smith’s, were a little irritating. Lastly, right from the pilot, the show lacked weight; I couldn’t grasp any substance to engage with in the narrative, which featured too many underdeveloped subplots and strands.

  32. Allie Anton

    I’ve never seen any Baz Luhrman, but I enjoyed your analysis of one of his favorite tropes. One of my favorite novelists, Regina Doman, once said she’d probably never feature a writer as a protagonist because, to her, it seemed narcissistic. Therefore, when I began reading classic literature and other sorts of books, I was surprised to find how many works of fiction feature a writer as a major character. They say “right what you know” but I always thought, while it can be done well, a writer writing a writer is a proposition fraught with peril.

  33. A troupe in film is for writers to be tragic characters, Kill Your Darlings, Misery, even the Shining all edge towards this. But Baz Luhrman makes it seem more real, while his settings can often be excitingly new and fresh. The Get Down is edging to be a terrific show, which I have no doubt will fall tragic

  34. Luhrmann is one of the only working filmmakers today who is willing to utterly abandon realism for a kind of heightened emotional state in his work (as opposed to, say, super hero films, that abandon realism but typically in trade for spectacle and little else, though there are exceptions). This I think has resulted in varying degrees of success. I adored Moulin Rouge (though I do think the characters, as some commentors point out, are at best two-dimensional…that’s not the point, though), and as someone who lived in Brooklyn for a long time and has worked in hiphop, I connect really strongly to The Get Down (in fact, I think that at least the pilot, which so far is the only one he directed, may be his strongest work). That said, I thought Gatsby, while interesting stylistically, was ultimately a crashing failure of a film. He captured the high intensity of the lush Gatsby life without much flair for the quiet interior anguish of the remaining story. Baz has never been subtle, and when he works to tell a quieter or more nuanced story, he isn’t typically as successful as when he’s embracing the kind of full-flush energy of youth. I think part of the recipe here is not just characters who are writers, but who are young, romantic, aspiring writers. That romantic aspiration is central to his vision. He directed La Boheme on stage (the opera that inspired the musical Rent), another work that is focused on the flush of youth and idealism. He is a poet of the idealists, and I think his decidedly nonrealistic style bears this out in visual and temporal form–everything is bright, over-designed, bursting with visual information and sweeping through events on an endorphin high.

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