Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down arrives on Netflix this week with a ton of expectations. Hip-hop history, music and culture has become the hot topic for a number of new TV projects–including VH1s The Breaks and FX’s upcoming Atlanta–and this particular show is daring to attempt to tell the story of hip-hop’s origins as a culture born in the South Bronx of the 1970s. That’s pretty sacred territory–and the show, which also includes Nas, Grandmaster Flash and Nelson George as executive producers–dives head-first into a heady mix of nostalgia, glitz and commentary.
The story follows a collection of Bronx youths–all with varying aspirations in music and/or art. Smith’s Ezekiel/Zeke (Justice Smith) aka “Books” is the shy, young poet with a motley crew of friends; free-spirited graffiti artist Dizzee (Jaden Smith), and Dizzee’s brothers; thoughtful Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) and the youngest member of the crew, the smart-alecky Boo (Tremaine Brown, Jr.) The four friends meet the mysterious Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) after he comes into confrontation with Zeke over an exceptionally rare record that both of them covet. After some initial trepidation, Shaolin comes to admire Zeke’s way with words and his heart. The crew comes together and, after Zeke and Shaolin rock a block party deejayed by Grandmaster Flash, christen themselves the Fantastic Four Plus One.
The story also follows Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) a girl also from the neighborhood, who is good friends with Dizzee, Ra-Ra and Boo’s sister, Yolanda (Stefanee Martin) and the object of Zeke’s semi-unrequited affections. More than anything, Mylene wants to be a disco star a la Donna Summer, but her pastor father forbids it. She and Zeke share a love of music (he plays piano for her at her dad’s church) but she’s more focused and driven–to her, Zeke is just a dreamer.
The show mixes the gritty realism of 70s New York City–the burned-out buildings in the Bronx, the joblessness and poverty are all prominent in the setting and the story–with the kind of opulence one has come to expect from Baz Luhrmann’s productions. It doesn’t always work: the flashback framing sometimes feels heavy-handed and the more grandiose musical moments recall Fame at it’s most ostentatious; but when the show is clicking on all cylinders, there’s real heart and characters that are genuinely charming and engaging.
As Zeke, Smith exudes the awkward thoughtfulness of a bookworm teenager. Like most of the cast, he’s about the same age as the character he’s portraying and he embodies Zeke well. When he has to recite a poem about his dead parents for his teacher, a scene that feels overly familiar (teacher informing jaded inner-city student that he could “be somebody”) becomes surprisingly heartfelt and resonant. And it’s all Smith.
Moore and Guardiola are also standouts; Moore has been building a name for himself ever since his breakthrough in last year’s indie hit Dope and her he gets to revel in full 70s swagger as the almost mythic Shaolin Fantastic. Shaolin’s around the same age as everyone else, but he’s already a legend to the graffiti artists; before they meet, Dizzee tells everyone to be on the lookout for Shaolin’s ninja-like skills with spray cans and his trademark red Pumas. But while Shaolin is a legend to his youthful peers, he’s just a go-fer and glorified sex toy for the crime maven who owns Les Inferno, a popular disco club where much of the show’s seedier moments occur; and he’s a student to Flash, who offers spiritual challenges and sage-like wisdom to his youthful protege.
As Mylene, Guardiola is charismatic and she wears her emotions on her sleeve. If there is a fault, it’s that too much of her character feels mired in genre cliches; the make-it-big at all costs aspirations, the daughter pushing for her own voice despite an oppressive father; the beautiful girl-next-door that’s been idealized by a heartsick boy–you’ve seen all of this before. Guardiola’s own energy helps keep Mylene from feeling overly cliche, but one hopes that as the show progresses, they give her more interesting things to do–and to be.
Rounding out the cast are a bevy of strong character actors: Jimmy Smits as Mylene’s corrupt uncle, Kevin Corrigan as a sleazy industry has-been, Giancarlo Esposito as Mylene’s religious father and lesser-known Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as disco king/gangster Cadillac all serve the material well. Smits, in particular, brings both a glowering menace and a surprising amount of tenderness to his character. There’s a lot going on with his character, Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, and his performance is so good that you find yourself wanting to know more about this man’s history.
There’s a lot going on here; the first episode suffers from odd pacing and sometimes the tone shifts can make for jarringly uneven storytelling; like when a glitzy disco dancing montage is intercut with scenes of extreme gunplay–you’re not sure if it’s supposed to harrowing or kitschy or both. And the story leans on cliches often–something that could sink character development in later episodes as things could get too predictably rote.
But none of these flaws are fatal.
What The Get Down gets right is a highly-stylized depiction of what it was like to get in on the ground floor of a cultural movement. One that was born of poverty and abandonment, something that all of the kids at the center of the story embody in various ways. When Zeke leaves Les Inferno only to be taken to Flash’s hip-hop party, the contrast is striking and significant: that was the past, this is the future. That was the adults–this is the kids. When Flash shows Shaolin Fantastic the secret to scratching and mixing, you’re as enthralled as Shaolin with how the legendary DJ keeps the beat. And Luhrmann makes sure you can feel the energy in those scenes–this show feels alive in those moments. And over the course of the series, it becomes more sure of itself and what it’s trying to say.
The Get Down doesn’t get everything right, but what it does is well worth the experience. The biggest winners are the cast, a group of talented youngsters who elevate the sometimes saccharine material with their own commitment. And, as to be expected, this show is gorgeously realized with some remarkable set pieces, including Les Inferno and that first block party. Like a lot of great hip-hop, the message can sometimes be muddy.
But the beat is undeniable.