Review: Netflix's 'The Get Down' a big swing at hip-hop's origins
Midway through the initial run of Netflix's new '70s hip-hop drama The Get Down, one of the show's young heroes makes a new friend who wants to hear his group's emerging sound.
"Not yet," he's told. "We're still decoding it."
For a bunch of black and Puerto Rican teenagers in the Bronx in the summer of '77 with precious little money or experience, taking a while to decode the next big thing is totally reasonable. For a $120 million behemoth of a television show, with all of Netflix's seemingly infinite resources thrown at bringing co-creator Baz Luhrmann's vision to life, the fact that The Get Down isn't even close to decoded through the end of its first six-episode batch (debuting a week from today; the other half of the first season will drop early next year) is more troubling.
The Get Down is a mess. At times, it's a thrilling mess, at other times a boring one, and there's just barely enough energy in the parts that work to power through the many parts that don't. But given its prolonged, expensive, troubled gestation (thoroughly chronicled by Variety's Cynthia Littleton), it's not surprising that the series is less coherent than it could be.
Though coherence has never been high on the priority list of Luhrmann, the colorful director of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. The title comes from the pioneering method that Grandmaster Flash (one of several historical figures interacting with the show's characters, played by Mamoudou Athie) and other early hip-hop DJs used in playing two different records at once and switching back and forth when the breaks intersected. The series is a collection of get downs, sometimes simply shifting between two different songs (usually one rap, one disco) in two different locales, sometimes trying to skip between multiple genres — musical one moment, soap opera the next, martial arts epic (no, seriously) the one after that — from scene to scene or even moment to moment.
At its heart, the show's a love triangle between Ezekiel (Justice Smith), an orphan with a gift for rhymes and a lifetime of bitterness to fuel them; Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), a girl dreaming of becoming the next disco sensation; and Shaolin (Shameik Moore), a former graffiti legend now learning the DJ arts under Grandmaster Flash. Only it's not the two guys fighting over Mylene; it's Mylene and Shaolin battling for the musical partnership and friendship (and perhaps more, in Mylene's case) of the multi-talented, charismatic Ezekiel. That's a pretty straightforward idea, but Luhrmann and his collaborators (including his co-creator, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis) keep mashing it up with so many other stories and genres that no one concept or character ever gets a chance to fully take root.
Grandmaster Flash is treated as a martial arts sensei, and the music and editing choices in their scenes often owe more to the Shaw Brothers than to the dawn of hip-hop. All three leads get tangled up in the criminal activity at the local disco, Les Inferno, and those sequences temporarily veer the whole show into a cross between Scorsese and blaxploitation, before we're then interrupted by raw news footage of the period which may used to set up a scene where Mylene's city councilman uncle Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits, taking as much pleasure in the polyester leisure suits that dominate Cruz's wardrobe as he does the character's proud Puerto Rican accent) gets approached by an emissary from mayoral candidate Ed Koch(*), and then we're back to stagey melodrama about Ezekiel and Mylene as star-crossed lovers, then bouncing forward to the mid-90s where a grown-up Ezekiel (now played by Hamilton alum Daveed Diggs) is a huge star whose autobiographical songs are so expository that they're less rap memoir than "Tonight, on The Get Down..."
(*) Koch, played by Frank Wood, gives several campaign speeches that are one or two words away from "Make America great again."
Suffice it to say, The Get Down is trying to do a lot of things at the same time, and the pieces rarely fit comfortably together. Yet the first episode — the only one of the six directed by Luhrmann — is so crazy, so stylized in its look (it wouldn't be a surprise if Captain Kirk chased a lizard monster through one of the burnt-out, rubble-strewn Bronx vacant lots) and sound (mixing period songs with original compositions that you'd need Shazam to identify as fugazi) and tone that the mismatched, exaggerated quality of it all almost works. And every time things start to drag, we'll get a dance-off at a disco club, or Shaolin doing parkour to escape the cops while keeping his red Puma sneakers perfectly clean, and the energy of it all forgives many sins.
I generally don't have much use for Luhrmann's hyper directing style, but it turns out to be The Get Down's most valuable weapon (followed by the fiery performance of Justice Smith). The later episodes, primarily directed by cable drama veteran Ed Bianchi (The Wire, Deadwood, Bloodline), are more conventionally shot, but flatter and more sluggish, and less able to disguise the baldness of the dialogue and the repetitive nature of the plotting. (In particular, it's impressive how many times in just six episodes Shaolin declares himself done with Ezekiel forever, and/or Ezekiel is forced to choose between accompanying Shaolin or Mylene on an adventure.) There's so much going on here, no one thing with any business being in proximity to any other thing, that the only reasonable approach is to go big with every single directing choice(*). The Luhrmann-directed pilot is far from perfect, but it comes by far the closest of any of the six to fulfilling the wild dreams that its characters and creators share(**). If the show at times seems more like a comic book — there's even a graffiti artist who calls himself Thor, and looks like he could play the role — than a gritty urban drama, that seems to be the point.
(*) Luhrmann also goes big on the running time: the pilot clocks in at over 90 minutes.
(**) Based on the critical reaction so far — where half the critics preferred the later episodes to the pilot, and vice versa, but where nearly everyone agrees that the show is flawed — your mileage could vary strongly.
Even in those later episodes, though, the show bursts into furious life whenever there's a musical number, whether Mylene turning her church choir performance into an impromptu audition for a music executive, Shaolin learning the art of the get down, or Ezekiel's friend Dizzee (Jaden Smith) watching in awe as the drag queens work the dance floor at a local underground club. I've watched the climactic rap battle from the sixth episode a half-dozen times already, and expect that number to double after the show premieres on Netflix proper rather than the press screener site. When the bass is thumping and the characters are figuring out their futures through the music that they hear or create, The Get Down and all its excesses begin to make total sense.
Of course, the same could have been said about many of the musical numbers on HBO's late, unlamented, and similarly expensive '70s music drama Vinyl, which, like The Get Down, even featured Grandmaster Flash's rival DJ Kool Herc in a few scenes. Eric Bogosian pops up a few times here as a record label president, and if he's not wearing Bobby Cannavale's exact Vinyl wardrobe and hairstyle, it's close enough that you can picture the two shows as part of the same cinematic universe. But where Vinyl had a remarkably irritating main character, and spent too much time playing Cable Drama's Greatest Hits, Ezekiel's passion and confusion are endearing, and The Get Down as a whole is striving for a whole lot more, even if its reach often exceeds its grasp.
Early on, Cruz takes a Manhattan politician on a tour of his district, boasting of the big plans he has to turn a ruined lot into a community center. He asks his new friend what he sees when he looks at the neighborhood.
"I see a national disgrace," the man replies.
"I see something beautiful," Cruz insists.
Ezekiel also sees the latter, and many of his rhymes are inspired by the wonder he finds in the Bronx that's burning all around him. When he has the mic, or sits at the piano, or paces around Shaolin's sound system, The Get Down lives up to many of the ambitions that Ezekiel, Cruz, and the creative team have for the place. The rest of the time? Well, you can throw money at many problems, but not even $120 million will apparently buy you a show that arrives fully-formed.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com