Review: Netflix's 'The Get Down' more about Baz Luhrmann's flair than hip-hop's beginnings in the Bronx
I’ve been waiting years for someone to make a proper movie or miniseries about the dawn of hip-hop in late-’70s New York City. At no point in all those years did the words “Baz Luhrmann” enter my mind.
But anything goes in the era of Too Much TV, and as a result we have The Get Down, a new 12-part Netflix musical drama co-created by the hyper-stylish Australian auteur (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby, Romeo + Juliet), who also helmed the first episode. The first six episodes drop Friday, with the rest coming in 2017.
Luhrmann spent more than 10 years developing the project, enlisting hip-hop legends like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Nas and historian Nelson George as producers and consultants. According to Variety, The Get Down cost at least $120 million to produce, making it one of the most expensive TV shows of all time.
In the first three episodes provided to reviewers, the investment shows. Like every Luhrmann production, The Get Down is stuffed with sumptuous sets, costumes and cinematography — so much so that it overwhelms whatever sense of realism and authenticity those old school pioneers were brought in to provide. There are stylistic nods to blaxploitation and kung fu flicks, spaghetti Westerns, even sitcoms like Good Times and The Jeffersons — but nothing especially close to a documentary look at the birth of an art form.
Is there anything wrong with storytelling that trades unflinching grit for grand, graffiti-like swoops of color? No, actually, TV could probably use a little more of that. But you have to wonder if, in the wake of Straight Outta Compton and #OscarsSoWhite, a white Australian would today top any network’s wish list to tell the real story of New York hip-hop. It might rub some the wrong way, like Luhrmann is trying to tell the story of someone else’s culture using the trappings of his own. That’s one problem.
Another is that for all its visual flourishes, The Get Down isn’t as breathtakingly original as it seems to think. Think of all the pitch-perfect time-capsule dramas set in the late 20th century: The Americans, Stranger Things, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Season 2 of Fargo. The Bronx in 1977 feels like a can’t-miss setting, but The Get Down is more concerned with directorial flair than illuminating the era’s details. Feels like a missed opportunity.
At the center of The Get Down are teens Ezekial (Paper Towns’ Justice Smith) and Mylene (newcomer Herizen Guardiola). Mylene is a preacher’s daughter who wants to be the next Donna Summer, Ezekial a bright but brooding poet who only wants Mylene. Neither has a clear path out of the burning blight of the Bronx — though Mylene’s uncle, corrupt but benevolent city councilman Francisco Cruz (a scenery-munching Jimmy Smits) wants to help.
While tracking down a rare disco record for Mylene, Ezekial encounters graffiti artist and street hustler Shaolin Fantastic (Dope’s Shameik Moore), who has musical dreams of his own. When Shao witnesses Ezekial’s gifts as a wordsmith, he takes him to an underground block party DJ’d by Grandmaster Flash (newcomer Mamoudou Athie), where it all crystallizes for Ezekial: Just as Mylene was meant to sing, he was meant to rap.
Looming in everyone’s way the way are gangs, shysters and no-goodniks aplenty, including crime boss Fat Annie (Tony winner Lillias White), her unpredictable son Cadillac (newcomer Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Mylene’s conservative father Pastor Cruz (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito).
While Smith, Guardiola and to a lesser degree Moore ground their roles in a degree of reality, the rest of the cast embraces Luhrmann’s over-the-top staging and sensibilities, projecting as if they’re in a Broadway musical instead of embracing the subtlety of the small screen.
That’s not always terrible; Luhrmann’s lens adores the incandescent Guardiola, and Abdul-Mateen is completely magnetic as a coked-up, disco-loving maniac. But it does amplify the show’s aura of camp and melodrama. (If you think you’re getting through The Get Down without at least one shot of blood on a disco ball, you don’t know Baz Luhrmann).
For a show ostensibly about the early days of hip-hop, there’s just not a lot of that in The Get Down, at least not in the early going. More might come after first three episodes, which portend a conflict between Ezekial and Mylene amid the death of disco and rise of rap (scenes flashing forward to 1996 remind you how the battle between those genres turned out, in case you'd forgotten).
I’m hoping for more scenes that take you inside the creative process, like the one where Flash teaches Shao how to man twin turntables with a crayon so he doesn’t lose “the get down” — the part in a song where the party goes off the chain. All due respect to Luhrmann, but that’s the story I’ve waited years to see on screen.
Someday, some network ought to call Spike Lee or Ava DuVernay and have them tell it.
-- Jay Cridlin