'The Get Down': TV Review

Courtesy of YouTube/Netflix
Gets off to a bad start, but improves as it goes along.
8/12/2016

Your tolerance for Baz Luhrmann might be the decisive factor in whether you like the 90-minute pilot about the birth of hip-hop in New York City, but the Netflix series regains its footing once its creator's fingerprints become less evident.

Netflix's new drama The Get Down, chronicling the rise of hip-hop and the downfall of disco in a smoldering, chaotic New York, is a gigantic hot mess from Baz Luhrmann. It suffers from a 90-minute pilot that will be divisive in its aesthetic choices — think West Side Story, not Spike Lee — but rises again in the next two episodes to give all the crazy a chance at becoming something really good.

The saving grace for The Get Down seems to be getting rid of the driving force that helped get it made in the first place — Luhrmann.

It would be easy to say that liking or hating The Get Down comes down to liking or hating Lurhmann, whose excesses work best in specific environments (Moulin Rouge) and less effectively in others (Australia, The Great Gatsby).

On paper, asking an Australian director known for flossy epic fun to detail the nascent days of hip-hop and rap culture as it was birthed out of the bleakest, most dangerous period of New York City history sounds like a mistake. And the excessively mannered (and, frankly, silly) 90 minutes that launch the series seem to confirm that. But an argument can be made that a gritty examination of those days — something that might be expected from Lee, for example — would have been predictable, and Luhrmann's brand of effervescent joie de vivre is, instead, a fresher approach.

Given the immense talents of the cast and the understandably epic approach to the story, it's also arguable that however you choose to make The Get Down, all the good stuff and the fascinating history will be strong enough to overcome dubious creative choices.

And yet, there's no getting around the fact that the second and third episodes (three initially were made available to critics by Netflix) happily end up becoming refreshingly coherent and toned-down, suggesting that there's a real future for The Get Down.

Reportedly wildly over budget and troubled on many fronts, The Get Down does nothing to dissuade that chatter with its fanciful characterization of the mean streets of the South Bronx, turning those building-burning days that super-charged the emergence of rap into what ends up looking like a stylized after-school special.

Instead of realism, Luhrmann gives us  Sharks vs. Jets dance numbers. There's a graffiti-artist who partakes in what looks like parkour, running around the Bronx with cheesy sound effects noting his quickness, then randomly breaking into karate moves, also with cheesy sound effects. (This graffiti artist is called Shaolin Fantastic, by the way, and he almost immediately wants to be a DJ learning from Grandmaster Flash, who takes on the challenge and starts calling him “Grasshopper.” Once this happens, the legendary graffiti artist almost never picks up a spray can again. It's never explained. There might also be some breakdancing involved at that point.)

It's typical Luhrmann: adrenalized pop that seems, in this case, as logical as Andy Warhol humping Jeff Koons in Yankee Stadium — familiar reference points of a time, haphazardly thrown on a canvas by someone who never witnessed it originally. Perhaps it’s a stylized ode, but it comes off as, well, both artistically ill-advised and confusing.

In the first episode, there are big winks at the silly stylings of the Kung Fu TV series and references to Star Wars — cultural touchstones Luhrmann perhaps intended as creative gilding but end up, if you're not all-in on them, as bong-fueled diversions that undercut the reality of the times. It's the epitome of Luhrmann creative excess that will likely divide the audience.

There are a number of real-life hip-hop players and historians involved with The Get Down that arguably give it authenticity and relevance, but it's also important to note that they are being paid and lionized as legends by a famous movie director on Netflix. Who would say no to that?

No matter what model Netflix is employing here, it's not inconceivable to think that half the audience will flee in head-shaking disappointment while the others go all-in for its eccentricities. At Netflix, where ratings don't really matter given the business model, that kind of polarizing premiere might be less worrisome than whether buzz will attract current subscribers and, more importantly, new ones. But on a purely creative level there's no getting around the fact that The Get Down is a show looking for a tone or, perhaps more accurately, a show that seemingly finds that tone by fleeing the excesses of its creator.

Which is odd.

That's not to say The Get Down totally abandons Luhrmann or won't, in future episodes, return to his blueprint. But by significantly scaling back in episodes two and three what Luhrmann put out there in episode one, The Get Down has a better chance at capturing a more inclusive, wider audience. And that's very hopeful, because there really is something good buried here if you can shake off that first episode — a caveat some might find familiar from HBO's Vinyl, where Martin Scorsese's wildly distinctive and movie-like two-hour pilot was then ratcheted back to become a less flamboyant TV series.

The main stories in The Get Down revolve around Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), the aforementioned mysterious graffiti artist turned wannabe DJ, who catches the attention of Ezekiel "Books" Figuero (Justice Smith) and his circle of young friends (including Jaden Smith, who gets his own guest-starring credit). In a flash-forward, the young Ezekiel/Books is a successful rapper telling his Bronx tale to a stadium full of fans. He is portrayed, fleetingly, by Daveed Diggs (Hamilton), who here raps to lyrics from Nas, who is one of the numerous producers on this series.

Anyway, back in 1977, Ezekiel is just a good-natured kid who takes to poetry/rap lyrics after his parents are killed and he's being raised by his aunt. Mostly, he's desperately in love with Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), a beautiful young girl with an amazing voice who has dreams of being the next Donna Summer, except that she's stuck singing in the choir at the church run by her repressive father (Giancarlo Esposito, who joins Jimmy Smits as one of the grown-up stars of the youth-driven series).

Once Ezekiel and Shaolin Fantastic (called Shao) hook up as friends, they want to work together as MC and DJ, respectively, praying at the altar of Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), the legendary turntablist who would be essential in kicking off hip-hop culture and rap with the Furious Five ("The Message," etc.). And yes, the real-life Grandmaster Flash is another producer on the series (as is Kurtis Blow and hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George).

At this point in the series, The Get Down is telling the late 1970s hip-hop story almost exclusively from the Grandmaster Flash perspective, but has hinted that it will eventually stretch out to include the stories of DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa to complete the holy DJ trinity (neither of them are producers and so far there's nary a mention of the Sugarhill Gang — but we don't know yet if The Get Down wants to be a fanciful docudrama or just a fictional version of real-life events).

As you may have gathered by now, The Get Down is ambitious. There's still Tony-winner Lillias White as a notorious club owner and gangster who's bedding Shao and whose son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a gun-toting, coke-snorting disco dancer trying to steal Mylene from Ezekiel. There are the secondary stories of Smits as a city council member with big dreams and Esposito as a repressive religious leader and Mylene's father. As these interwoven stories emerge in the pilot, Luhrmann has the kids dancing all over the screen, working their teen angst and dreams out against the backdrop of burning Bronx buildings and running from a rival street gang that seems to have escaped from Sesame Street.

Yeah, this series is epically all over the place.

While there are plenty of good-to-intriguing-to-excellent hip-hop documentaries and docuseries (Beat This: A Hip-Hop History; Rhyme & Reason; And You Don't Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop), it's not clear after three episodes what The Get Down is seeking to accomplish. But the first 90 minutes is definitely wack.

Keeping patient and committed for the next two episodes pays off because directors Ed Bianchi and Andrew Bernstein ground and focus The Get Down. They use real-life video footage of Bronx residents and also weave in news reports of the chaos of the times effectively. Many of the visual and sound-effects flourishes in the pilot are gone or toned down. And the strong cast is allowed to truly shine. The world-building and weirdness of the pilot is replaced by grit; the dialogue improves; storylines are more coherent and credible. 

This series is still sprawling. Three episodes are not enough to know where it's going or where it will end up. The second and third episodes don't completely wriggle free of some of Luhrmann's whimsy. But all told, there's a better balance between what the famed director apparently wanted to do with tone and hewing more accurately to the times. In other words, if you don't get completely put off by the pilot, there's hope.

Cast: Justice Smith, Herizen Guardiola, Shameik Moore, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito

Created by: Baz Luhrmann

Stephen Adly Guirgis

First 6 of 12 episodes to air Aug. 12 (Netflix)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

 

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