Composer Elliott Wheeler takes us behind the scenes of composing the music and working with Grandmaster Flash for Netflix’s The Get Down.
Netflix’s The Get Down became instantly infamous for its rumored massive price tag. Yet, when you watch the series and whatever the cost may have been, it’s all right there on-screen. Hailing from Moulin Rouge!‘s Baz Luhrmann, The Get Down follows a group of teenagers during the rise of hip-hop in the disco era. As a musical drama, music became one of the most critical elements of the production. Yet, composer Elliott Wheeler (The Great Gatsby) delivered a substantial amount of music despite the overwhelming task ahead of him.
Here, Wheeler talks with Awards Daily TV about working with Baz Luhrmann, Grandmaster Flash, and others to create the sonic tapestry of The Get Down.
You and Baz Luhrmann worked together on numerous projects. What did he say about The Get Down?
I’ve been working with him on a number of projects including The Great Gatsby. Baz’s way of going about it was a two-line email that said, “El, do you want to come over and help me on this little project?” That was it. It was one of those projects where we had an idea of what it was going to be but certainly the scope and how musical it was going to be was something we had a taste of, but I don’t think either of us imagined how incredible it would be a process and journey to go through together.
How did the music all come together between composing the tunes and original music?
You do as much research as you can, but in a situation like this, we were very much blessed by the people who were there. Having people like Grandmaster Flash, Curtis Blow, Rahiem, Nile Rodgers, and Quincy Jones on there was helpful. Getting the oral history and finding out the real details such as the needles Flash was using and the speed, the speakers, and the process he had to do a crossfade. People forget it hadn’t been done before, so you see the thought process that went behind that is remarkable. It’s a mathematical as well as a philosophical challenge to do. Being able to speak to Flash and the others and have them lead by the hand was such a remarkable education and such a great honor for them to trust us with that story.
You’re also working on the instrumental score. How do you decide where music needs to go?
Part of Baz’s mantra was that we didn’t want any numbers where people would just singing out of nowhere. The music had to be interwoven into the plot line that if you took musical numbers out the whole story would cease to make sense. We were very lucky because it was so incredibly collaborative with the music, the choreography, the editors. We were all in the same room sharing stories. When we were doing our stories, the sound desk would come in and talk. We were moving back and forth with departments. It was really organic, and the importance that he places on music for a composer is just a dream. Being in the position to be a music producer and composer on this show and seamlessly blend the score with the music and having the resources allowed a musical thread to follow the series.
How did you prep the actors on the musical numbers?
It really depended on where we were in the process. One of the things that was very important was recognizing that these wonderfully talented young actors had grown up on an entirely different diet of music. Rapping and The Get Down brothers were already great rappers, but they had grown up in the 2000’s.
We spent two months before the show in this boot camp in Queens with Flash, Curtis, and Rahim working with the kids every day who were feeding them a diet of rap from that time. There were different modalities about where things were set in the bar and the vibe structures, and it was really wonderful to watch them learning the movements and sounds from that area. They learned how to change records.
What was the energy like on set?
It was insane. There was a sense of how exciting it was going to be on camera. It was a testament to both Baz and our choreographers, but there was a sense of historical responsibility to the people who were trusting us with these stories to get it right. In one of the final scenes, there were some amazing scenes, we had Rahim Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, and Grandmaster Cay all watching the monitor. it was a real pinch-yourself moment. It was like having a very extended party, combined with the incredibly hard work of doing a performance and the numerous shots we had to do to get it right. It was an amazing feeling.
What are some of the pieces that stand out for you?
They all resonated in so many different ways. “Set Me Free” was a special number for us because we took a long time threading through the story. You see that melody coming through almost two episodes before you see the final rendition of that number. Working with Kevin Corrigan and what he did and seeing that performance was special.
The boys’ number that we see at the end of act one was incredibly special. For the creative team, it was the first time we worked with Grandmaster Flash and Rahim to create a number like that. It was a culmination of the script and story within the hip-hop world.
The music goes through this journey. Just watching it, I learned a lot. Where did you start with the music?
The amount of research that is done before a show starts is off the charts. With the music, Nelson George had written a book on hip hop and soul and was the first person to write about a hip hop performance. He was really a guide for us. Also, just speaking to everyone and sitting in a room with them, because there were no actual recordings, so much of what we learn and the story we hear in the show is a direct representation of what the guys said from talking to us. So, a lot of it was about what song would you play at this gig, and they’d bring along their vinyl.
On the scoring side, it’s a period of music that I have always been obsessed with. Issac Hayes, Herbie Hancock were doing a great amount of work at that time, and so I tried to work their sound in. We had a great ensemble in the studio, and it was a dream to hear them.
What has the whole experience been like for you?
It’s very emotional to watch it. It was a mammoth undertaking. You work on something for as long as you did, and it’s consumed in an afternoon. It’s there and gone, but I think you can see all the love that has gone into the show.
You get so much out of the fan response who come up to you and say how great it was. Having the greats on the set were the special moments for me.
The Get Down currently streams on Netflix.