The Get Down.
Showrunner: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Shameik Moore, Justice Smith, Herizen Guardiola, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
The titular "get down," as it's used in Baz Luhrmann's hotly anticipated and ridiculously expensive Netflix drama, is the term for the section of a song that's better than everything that surrounds it. It's the distilled essence of greatness in the four-measure breakdown, or the 10-second outro--the nugget of brilliance around which the rest of the track is constructed. As Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) explains to Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith), finding the get down is about isolating it from the "wack" that surrounds it, which is sometimes the whole rest of the vinyl record.
Sure, it might be a hackneyed metaphor for life. Luhrmann is a master of gussied-up shlock, as his Red Curtain film trilogy attests. Fans of "Strictly Ballroom," "Romeo + Juliet," and "Moulin Rouge!" will recognize familiar beats in "The Get Down," from the cartoonish renderings of live-action drama to the lethally deployed pop-music soundtrack. But in the Bronx of 1977 (the series takes place over one summer), in neighborhoods so criminally neglected that they resemble a war zone, romance and beauty feel a lot less hackneyed in the hands of the abandoned kids of New York City.
"The Get Down" is a beautiful mess, a flawed show interspersed with moments of remarkable brilliance. For Netflix, it consumed an unprecedented amount of time and money, and the result smacks of half-baked creative ambition run amok. There's a deliberately off-putting messiness to the execution, with cartoonishly blended tonal shifts that go from cheesy caricature to gritty tragedy.
Stock footage from the '70s is knitted together with elaborate production design. Some scenes are filmed like musical numbers on "Glee," others like action sequences from Bruce Lee's kung fu films. It's easy to see in this approach nothing but a patchy, inconsistent flight of fancy --maudlin where it ought to be tough, sentimental where it ought to be smart, and undercutting the viewer's expectations at every turn.
But "The Get Down," in its multitudes and sprawl, resembles the Bronx itself; and in refracting the narrative through so many different lenses--blaxploitation and black family sitcom, musical comedy and gritty prestige drama, campy action and teenage romance--it aims to portray the richness of that neglected borough. The show's pastiche resolves into a gorgeous, fantastical tapestry of music legend and urban history, a reclamation of, and a love letter to, a marginalized community of a certain era, told through the unreliable tools of romance, intuition, and lived experiences.
All that can be alienating, but simultaneously, the show feels like vital, radical work. The subject matter and characters are extraordinary for their uniqueness on television--from a main cast constituted entirely of actors of color, to the intense focus on the culture and ambitions of some of the most disenfranchised populations in America. Shao and Zeke's commitment to dig into the get down of their lives is an attempt to tune out the wack of their violent and unfair world, populated with death and poverty and no-exit despair. And the characters' luck--as well as the genre of filmmaking--can turn on a dime, and head in a totally different direction.
By the fifth episode, "The Get Down" finds a stunning facility within this pastiche, knitting together multiple storylines in musical montages that are just the right amount of sincere cheesiness and arch camp.
But the show takes some long and meandering hours to reach its sweet spot. And the first episode, at a bloated 92 minutes, is a terrible introduction. The indulgently titled "Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope for a Treasure" (the only episode directed by Luhrmann himself this season) is too long, confusing, and labored, rather than dreamlike; it feels work-shopped to death.
In his films, Luhrmann's strength is in pivoting tonal shifts off of each other to create engaging spectacles out of what are, essentially, the most basic of romantic narratives. But the problem is, "The Get Down" has two such narratives--Zeke's romance with his "butterscotch queen" Mylene, and his intense friendship with bandmate Shao. It's an interesting but crowded dynamic, especially at first, and each relationship feels like it exists in a separate show.
It's too much. Both spheres are compelling, as is the diametric opposition of Shao and Mylene, both jealous of Zeke's attention to the other. But it's tempting to want to lift a chisel to the show and crack it down the middle--to turn this overstuffed idea into one solid premise.
What saves "The Get Down," for those willing to invest in the three- to four-episode payoff, is Smith's preternaturally brilliant performance as Zeke, the character that ties together Mylene, Shao, and the many fractured pieces of the story. To emphasize the point, Zeke is mixed-race --half black like Shao, and half Puerto Rican like Mylene. And while those two are hotheaded and impetuous, Zeke's head is in the clouds (much to the frustration of the adults in his life).
"Books," as Shao calls Zeke, is also the viewer's emotional anchor--the sensitive window into 1977 that allows for greater connection to the story. Each episode begins with a framing device set in 1996, where Zeke's older self, played by Daveed Diggs, raps the opening credits (and does a little plot recap of what came before). Zeke bridges Shao and Mylene, and the past and the present; and by narrating, he also bridges the fourth wall, between the characters and the audience.
While the other actors portray characters who sometimes seem mannered or surface-level, Smith is consistently grounded in his character's emotions, depicting both typical teenage-boy angst and the era- and location-specific yearning for something bigger and better. In one of the first rapped poems we hear from Zeke, he describes learning that he was "a n--er" for the first time, from his now-dead father. It's heartbreaking.
Still, even the actor's Herculean efforts, can't singlehandedly bring together such a wide-ranging show. It's difficult to imagine any of it connecting without his performance, but there's still plenty that doesn't quite resonate anyway. Plus, as the six episodes debuting Aug. 12 represent only half the season, the midseason finale of "The Get Down" may feel like--wait for it--a letdown.
After falling in love with the Fantastic Four Plus One, those concerns don't seem as essential. The stories of "The Get Down" are relatively simple, embellished with increasingly complex plot devices and grace notes. At its core is the age-old story of the hero's journey--a boy (or in this case, a few boys) finding himself in a world populated with terror, darkness, and the occasional flickering light of home. It's a different kind of fantasy tale. But the power it's able to call upon and depict with reverence--the unifying, healing, endless possibility of music, man--feels magical, all the same.
The Bottom Line
The numbers tell the story of Baz Luhrmann's "The Get Down."
Years in production
Number of episodes
Original cost per episode
Final production cost
Executive producers: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Nas, Grandmaster Flash, Stephen Adly Guirgis. 60 MIN. (92 MIN. premiere)
CAST: Shameik Moore, Justice Smith Herizen Guardiola, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito, Jaden Smith
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|Article Type:||Television program review|
|Date:||Aug 9, 2016|
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