I recently finished watching Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated hip-hop drama The Get Down on Netflix. Late? Yes. I can binge watch with the best of them, but I slowed down my pace to enjoy it with my husband. It’s excruciatingly slow by Internet (especially Twitter) standards. Sometimes I get a little stubborn pleasure in being the last person to see–and give an opinion on– something popular. So, if you’re late like me, this review is for you.
First, some housekeeping. This post will contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen The Get Down yet, I suggest you not read beyond this paragraph.
Now for some background. I came to hip-hop really, really late. In a lot of ways, I’m still working my way backward to listen to the best of the genre. I’m not a hip-hop head; I’m a casual fan. I went into The Get Down expecting to encounter more of a narrative dramatization of facts, even a quasi-documentary. Surprisingly, Luhrmann and his co-creator, Stephen Adly Giurgis, wrote a technicolor love letter to the elements of the culture. The series eschews purism for essence.
The Get Down resembles more of a modern day fairy tale than reality.
Ezekiel Figuero is an Afro-Latino orphan (played by newcomer Justice Smith) whose Bronx borough is at once under siege and untouched. Neither Zeke nor his friends are affected by the worst in the Bronx. But at the heart of The Get Down is the decline of the working class and the rise of the concrete jungle. Arsonists inexplicably torch abandoned tenements. The drug trade contributes to the neighborhood’s growing blight and flourishes in the shadows of these smoldering buildings.
But something else stirs phoenix-like in the ashes–hip-hop.
If none of that sounds like a fairy tale, it is the perfect setting for one. Zeke struggles to find himself in this wild, as much as he struggles to win the affection of his leading lady, Mylene Cruz. Mylene initially has little patience for his advances in her pursuit of fame as a singer. Then Zeke discovers his love for “The Get Down” (or hip-hop, because what art form is self-referential in its infancy?) Dodge the treacherous setting, beat the Bad Guys, get the girl, win the contest. It’s a fairy tale set to a disco break beat.
The Get Down ups the ante when it combines the concrete jungle with the fantastic, quite literally. Shameik Moore’s character shines as the red jacket-clad DJ Shaolin Fantastic. A sword-carrying, wall-climbing, kung fu aficionado dope boy in the Bronx? Love! Shao is the anti-hero to Zeke’s protagonist, a DJ in search of an MC to form his hip hop crew.
The remaining peripheral characters loom a bit larger-than-life. There are several Big Bad Wolves: Fat Annie ( a drug lord reminiscent of The Wiz’s Evilene); Mr. Gunns (the embodiment of White capitalist racism in a suit); “Cadillac” (Fat Annie’s son, cartel lieutenant and a disco club manager). These wolves huff and puff at the cocoon protecting Zeke from the seedier parts of the Bronx. They have teeth–we get to witness a murder–but because our hero never feels broken skin, the villains become rather cartoonish.
The characters, aesthetic, and trip of hip-hop make The Get Down worth watching.
TGD almost altogether forsakes historicity for nostalgia. Hardly anyone’s raps sound like hip-hop circa 1977. Mylene wears a tragic wig that doesn’t jibe with her father’s conservatism or the period. The directors attempt to weave in authenticity via cinematic effects. We see documentary vignettes between scenes and a faux, VHS-like fuzziness to impart a vintage feel to the film. It suffers for this substitution. Much like a kaleidoscope delivers impressions of color, the show forsakes the details that could’ve given it an edge it lacks.
But its impressions are also part of its ultimate charm. You will love the orange-upholstered classic car. The costuming is also fun and stylishly retro. The most gorgeous scene in The Get Down unfolds like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Jaden Smith’s character Dizzee both finds and loses himself at a drag show. It is a trip worth taking: a Skittles display of lights flickering across the wall, the theatrical glory of the Voguing drag queens, the giddiness of LSD dissolving on his tongue. Transported, Dizzee kisses a boy he has not admitted he likes. I was surprised the show went there. But the nod to LGBTQ’s role in music was refreshing and the most interesting part of the episode.
You could call The Get Down a musical in the loosest sense of the word. Although disco and hip-hop music tie the various plot lines together, the show’s music isn’t the biggest draw. The lip syncing would make Milli Vanilli proud. The underuse of Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs is a travesty; Nas is also too good a rapper to give voice to high school rhymes. What the audience ends up appreciating, however, are the parts when the characters fall in love with the new music they are making. Part 1’s climax satisfies in that each main character reaches their goal. Zeke, Mylene, hip-hop, and disco all come of age in 1977.
My rating? Do it for the culture.
Despite its flaws, The Get Down is a fairy tale the culture needed. It uses history as a starting point and fantasy as its destiny, but why doesn’t hip-hop deserve to romanticize its origin story? One of the best parts of hip-hop has always been an embellished truth. Luhrmann’s work is loyal to that sentiment alone, unshackled by a purism that would limit its fancy. Even a faithful retelling needs a bit of fiction to sell it. TGD is the answer to the question: How did the music first make you feel? For me, like a mythology rising.
So why watch The Get Down? Tune in if you’re interested in seeing young, Black male protagonists in roles that fall on a spectrum of personality. Watch it if you get a thrill out of seeing the elements of hip-hop represented on screen (albeit loosely). And if you want to hear Nas narrating? Do it for the culture. It’s good for at least one smile. Scratch that into a smooth loop and you might catch yourself falling in love with something new.