“The Get Down” on Netflix
Baz Luhrmann, the Broadway-
Set in NYC’s iconic Bronx neighborhood in 1977, “The Get Down” tries to hip viewers to the birth of rap music. By combining its fictional storylines with real-life characters and places, “The Get Down” creates a fantasy-filled history lesson that freely remixes Thank God It’s Friday, Beat Street, The Wiz, Ed Piskor’s encyclopedic graphic novel series Hip Hop Family Tree and just a touch of Batman and Robin. It’s unpredictable and occasionally thrilling. But it’s hard to say just who the show is aimed at: old school B-boys and flygirls looking to connect with their roots or hipster urban anthropologists hoping to catch a glimpse of revisionist history.
Though it functions, in the long haul, as an ensemble story, most of the dramatics center on young Ezekiel (Justice Smith from Paper Towns). Zeke is a troubled kid living with his aunt in tumbledown 1970s New York. He’s got issues with confidence and direction, but he’s blessed with the gift of gab, which he parlays into a secret career as a high school poet. If only he could summon the courage to show off some of those rhyming skills to the girl of his dreams, would-be disco diva Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). When Mylene sneaks out behind the back of her fire-and-brimstone pastor of a father (Giancarlo Esposito) to hand off her demo tape to a famed DJ at a local dance club, Zeke senses an opportunity. If he can deliver an ultra-rare 12-inch record to the club and enter the dance contest with her, he’s sure to win her heart.
The only problem is that coveted 12-inch is also in the sights of mysterious graffiti artist Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore, Dope). Luhrmann, sitting behind the camera for the show’s first, plus-sized episode turns the conflict between Zeke and Shaolin into an epic, hyper-stylized clash between superpowered individuals. Squint just right and it looks like the origin story of how Batman and Robin teamed up. Crazy as Luhrmann’s perspective is, it’s a clever conceit—as the two rivals are soon to combine their secret powers (rapping and deejaying) to conquer the world.
Around this musical rags-to-riches fairy tale, Luhrmann and his collaborators spin an outsized saga incorporating criminal kingpins, politicians, street gangs and shady businessmen. It isn’t easy in today’s Disneyfied Manhattan to recreate the bombed-out war zone that was 1970s NYC. By tossing in a newsreel’s worth of old footage, employing some judicious CGI work and confining itself largely to one expertly art-directed block of the retro-trashy Bronx, “The Get Down” manages to evoke a stylized approximation of hip-hop’s early days. For veracity’s sake, the script even tosses a few real-life hip-hop luminaries into its mix (Mamoudou Athie, for example, as pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash).
After the energizing, ADD-addled first episode—combining everything from comic books to dance sequences to kung fu action— things get a bit more conventional. But when it sticks to those showstopping moments of musical action, “The Get Down” is a surefire hit.