Music's Television Empire
Television series about musicians and the music industry are almost as old as TV. The first network television season was broadcast in the U.S. seven decades ago and within a few years musicians were a central part of the story. When "I Love Lucy" debuted in 1951 Lucille Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz, played a bandleader, with plenty of music performance segments on the show. In the 1960s the Monkees parlayed a hit show into pop stardom and the '70s found "The Partridge Family" telling everyone to "come on, get happy."
Reality TV hit the scene in the '00s, and the small-screen focus was on a few unscripted series that took fans into homes of their favorite artists, from Ozzy Osbourne to Snoop Dogg.
But television is always evolving. The latest resurgence of music on TV arguably started in 2009 with Fox's "Glee" and has been further punctuated by the more recent success of "Empire" — the network's latest bona fide hit, which debuted in 2015.
Last year also saw the debut of Denis Leary's FX comedy "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll." The introduction of two acclaimed music-centric series was just a warmup for 2016, which has seen some of the biggest names in film bring stories of musicians to the small screen.
The shift coincides with what critics are dubbing the new golden age of television, a period of increased production of critically acclaimed television shows beginning in the mid-2000s. While television used to be dominated by broadcast networks CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, scripted shows have found success on cable networks such as HBO and Showtime and, more recently, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
Two Oscar winners, Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe, and Oscar nominee Baz Luhrmann, have all come to TV this year. Although short-lived, Scorsese, along with Mick Jagger, brought "Vinyl" to HBO in February while Crowe's "Roadies" premiered on Showtime in June. Luhrmann might be taking on his most ambitious project yet, bringing "The Get Down," his much-anticipated musical drama, to Netflix. Part one of the 12-episode first season premieres Aug. 12.
Working with everyone from hip-hop artists Nas and Grandmaster Flash to author Nelson George, Luhrmann is recreating New York circa 1977, specifically the South Bronx neighborhood, where residents witnessed the birth of hip-hop and the decline of disco all while salsa and punk infiltrated other areas of the city.
Luhrmann — the man behind films such as The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet — believes TV, or what we used to think of as TV, is currently the perfect home for shows about music.
"Television no longer describes what we're discussing here," says Luhrmann. "The streaming services are more in the nature of broadcast. It's so great. There needs to be a new word because television used to be the place where you were super constrained — you were constrained by the times and morally, the rules. Now those two things are almost reversed."
"[Today] you have much more creative freedom. When you're dealing with music, a story about music culture, the ability to do it in segments really suits that because it's a way and space to tell the story laterally, but also horizontally. You can explore in a way you simply couldn't within a two-hour sitting."
For Crowe, who won an Oscar for writing 2000's Almost Famous, a film about a young reporter covering the fictional rock band Stillwater, the new wave of TV shows centered around music validates his belief that music is as important as ever.
"I was just hearing all this stuff about music is dead as a meaningful art form. 'It's too available, there's too many formats, nobody's paying for it, nobody values it,' and I'm just thinking, 'Bull****, that's just not true,'" said Crowe in a June interview with Forbes. "And that's kind of the thesis of ["Roadies"], music matters more than ever."
The value of music in 2016 — in the age of streaming and YouTube — is a topic of frequent debate, but the current omnipotence of music as well as the massive success of touring and festivals lends credence to Crowe's belief that even if people are not spending as much they still love music as much, if not more, than ever.
Fandom is exactly what inspired Luhrmann's vision for "The Get Down" back in 2006.
"I started this concept with a question 10 years ago, which was, 'How did a totally new idea [hip-hop] get born from a borough in a time where there was little care for that borough or the people [there]?" says Luhrmann. "How did they come up with a brand-new, pure creative idea? I realized when we started to look at 1977, disco was the reigning music form, but there's something going on downtown called punk, you have salsa and the Latin influence and then you have this invention going on by a bunch of kids, which is essentially a kind of folk music in a way."
It was on that journey of discovery when Luhrmann started to realize the story he wanted to tell wouldn't fit within the two-hour confines typically reserved for film, which was exactly what the executives at Netflix wanted to hear.
"I started thinking of it as a movie, and as I did I thought, 'How do you tell all of that? The very nature of it is that it's unwieldy, the very nature of it has to be sprawling.' And sprawling and unwieldy are not words executives who make movies want to hear," he says. "But sprawling and unwieldy are exactly what Netflix wanted to hear because they want to hear something that has an ongoing life and cannot just be linear. The evolution of television caught up with me, and at the right moment the two things met."
Unlike a movie, in which stories tend to be neatly wrapped, television allows Luhrmann to think of the future. He is optimistic "The Get Down" will be renewed for a second season potentially exploring 1979, when disco was symbolically destroyed in July at famed Comiskey Park in Chicago by Disco Demolition Night, a promotional stunt that saw disco records blown up on the field following a White Sox versus Detroit Tigers game. Two months later, in September, Sugarhill Gang released "Rapper's Delight," the song widely credited with bringing hip-hop to the masses, and one of the first hip-hop songs inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
For Luhrmann, as a fan of the music and the era, success is not his motivation. He is content to be the conduit to tell a story he loves.
"I care about [the story and] so many others care about it, I'm kind of the grand conductor. But it's a profound collaboration. That's also what drew me — it's a living history. In the past I've done things that were involved in the past. But this is a living history, the people are actually alive. And so I worked with them to help [tell their] story. And that's really enriching."
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Mojo, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)