The Get Down has the tragic resonance it deserves, though Baz Luhrmann pulls back from confronting the narrative’s political implications.
By Lucas Spiro
Poverty, puberty, gangsters and grooves collide in The Get Down, the original Netflix series about the origins of hip hop. Director Baz Lurhmann brings his hyper-stylized pastiche method of filmmaking to his first television effort, while George Nelson and a crew of hip hop pioneers have been brought in to fill out the historical and cultural background. With the assistance of Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, and Nas, this series provides a convincing depiction of the development of the beat that rules the world. Casual rap fans will be delighted by the privileged, ‘insider’ view this sprawling saga offers.
For the diehard enthusiast, The Get Down doesn’t offer much that is new. But the familiar is served up in an exciting, genre-bending package that is propelled by an ominous question: who or what might end up owning the show’s group of young, idealist heroes? The dramatic suspense gives this hop hop melodrama the tragic resonance it deserves, though Luhrmann pulls back from confronting the narrative’s political implications.
It is the summer of ’77, and the Bronx is burning. Arsonists for hire set the ruined borough ablaze for the insurance money, while the city responds by cutting funding for fire fighters. The love sick high schooler Ezekial “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith) and his friends, the Kipling brothers, find refuge in poetry, music, and graffiti. They paint artful graffiti on the walls, trains, and tunnels of their crumbling community. Their hyperbolic imaginations draw on the imagery of comic books, science fiction, and kung-fu films. The conflict pits creative expression against utter despair and oppression. This battle takes on ironic proportions for each character: economic misery generates a longing for aspiration. Success inevitably dilutes their art’s inspiration and power.
The series begins on the last day of school. Driven by the love he has for his childhood friend Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola), Zeke goes to extreme lengths to get Mylene’s favorite record to a club where she is also trying to bring her demo tape to the attention of a prominent DJ. To Zeke, it’s his last chance to win her heart before she gets a record deal, moves to Manhattan, and becomes a disco star. His efforts find him drawn into the orbit of Shaolin “Shao” Fantastic (Shameik Moore); he’s an elusive graffiti artist and aspiring DJ who also works as a drug dealer and male prostitute for the club owner and gangster Fat Annie. It turns out that Shao has been sent on a quest for the same record by a mysterious figure who calls Shao “Grasshopper.” Shao takes Zeke and his friends to an underground show where the mystery man (who turns out to be none other than Grandmaster Flash) is spinning his infinite loop of the break beat while the early emcee Cowboy spits rhymes. Zeke is handed the mic and his poetic talents shine, revealing him to be the “wordsmith” Shaolin has been looking for.
Zeke, Shao, and the Kipling brothers form a new hip hop crew called the Get Down Brothers. Under the instruction of Grandmaster Flash, Shao learns the secret of his mixing techniques. Zeke writes the rhymes, Boo-Boo (T.J. Brown), Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), and Dizzee (Jaden Smith), each bring their distinctive talents to the crew. They are also Zeke’s best friends, and the series takes plenty of opportunities to have them share their personal struggles and talk over the challenges they confront as a group.
Credit must be given to casting on this one. Virtually all of the actors involved are unknowns or newcomers, and they deliver convincing performances of kids who have become caught up in something much larger than themselves. Perhaps that enthusiasm reflects the cast members’ real life situations. After all, these are rookies dealing with the critically acclaimed Lurhmann and a revolving door of hip hop legends — the kinetic energy of the acting should be no surprise.
Visually, the show is a collage of various textures and influences. Grainy, found footage of notorious street gangs, such as the Savage Nomads, give way to CGI action sequences and musical numbers. Sometimes the proceedings become positively cartoonish — gauche, dark, and comedic. The look is part blaxploitation, part comic book, and part dutiful historical recreation. The result is an aesthetic yin yang: sometimes the Bronx is a wasteland, sometimes it is intensely beautiful.
The Get Down has its drawbacks, rooted in its fondness for wallowing in unresolved extremes. The acting can become exaggerated, particularly when the story’s protagonists are called on to become rhapsodic. (It sometimes feels as if they are self-consciously ‘acting’ in a Lurhmann extravaganza.) In terms of mood, the show hops from one polarity to another, and not always seamlessly. Long, musical numbers are inevitably and predictably trotted out.
The style of rapping the Get Down Brothers develop is closely related to the acts that went mainstream in the late ’70s and early ’80s — The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky 4+1, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. The music of these artists dealt with the struggles of growing up poor and black; their tunes focused on the history of slavery and reality of police brutality, chronicled living in housing projects, grappled with drug use and violence. Underneath it all was the desire to learn to love oneself in spite of it all.
And that call for political responsibility leads to The Get Down‘s major contradiction. Hip hop is presented as a positive alternative to urban despair, community building opposed to the life of street violence. But it is also offered as an exciting way to attain the American dream, a means to power, money, sex, drugs, and fame. The greatest crime in America is to be poor rather than not loving yourself. So it makes commercial (though not consistent) sense that Luhrmann wants to have it both ways — cheering on exploitation as well as inspiration.
Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occassionally, he is joyous.