“The Get Down” Is Still Figuring it Out

Posted on August 16, 2016

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The following review will contain minor spoilers for the first six episodes.

The Get Down, the Netflix series about the dawn of hip hop as filtered through the aesthetic of Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom and Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann, is ambitious, energetic and (at least for the first few hours) unlike any TV series we’ve seen before. If nothing else, the visuals and sounds of The Bronx in 1977 (faithfully recreated through incredible costume design and some slightly dicey CG backgrounds) were enough to keep us enraptured for the first few episodes, even if those episodes – and all the remaining ones – are far from perfect.

The series starts off by somewhat clumsily straddling the line between stark realism and magical realism. The effect is like watching a movie that you fully expect to erupt into a huge MGM-style musical number or effects-laden magical trip any second, but never actually does. We follow the story of Ezekiel Figueroa, a lost man without a family but possessing the soul and temperament of a poet. Events transpire and he winds up meeting Shaolin Fantastic, a budding mixmaster and the boy toy and occasional courier for crime queen Big Annie and her son, the flamboyant, violent, and not particularly bright Cadillac. Real world hip hop legend Grandmaster Flash is re-imagined as a sensei figure in a Kangol cap; a wise master in the Yoda tradition, complete with cryptic advice and almost supernatural appearances and disappearances. On the other side of the music aisle (but still smack in the Bronx), churchgoing girl Mylene longs to become a disco queen and risks breaking up her family (full of secrets) in order to do it.

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Is this all starting to sound a little broad and almost impressionistic in tone? Then we’ve managed to get the feel across. In the beginning parts of the series, the characters are less living and breathing people and more like archetypes who spew sound bites and drop intense philosophical thoughts at the drop of a hat. No one talks like this, no one moves like this, no one lives like this. It’s like the story of hip hop told through cave paintings and interpretive dance. And while it was a mess, it was also really exciting.

Watching the burned-out husks of the Bronx in the background and the vast stretches of rubble and empty lots populated by gang members, graffiti artists, mixmasters, poets and singers is almost like watching an attempt to do a gritty, ’70s version of West Side Story. Except we’re far from the West Side and there aren’t as many big dance numbers as you’d expect. This sounds both more complimentary AND more critical than we mean it to, which is probably right about where we should be with this review. Our point is, for the first couple of Baz Luhrmann-directed hours, there is a form of clumsy magic on display; a series of fairly unrealistic scenes shot in a highly stylized manner broken up by quieter, more conventionally dramatic fare that manages to be charming, based almost solely on the performances of the cast.

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This balancing act between realism and stylized realism appears to be somewhat impossible to sustain, to our eyes. And we imagine the rather tumultuous creative team behind the series came to realize the same thing. By the 6th episode, the show had quieted down a bit from its manic beginning and settled into something more like a rote prestige period drama, with multiple storylines servicing multiple characters, some of which overlapped. While the evolution struck us as somewhat necessary (high energy is fun, but it’s not always the best way to tell a story), the show lost something after Luhrmann handed the directorial duties over to others. It gained a stronger sense of story and character, but the sense of magic was drastically reduced.

And the interesting thing to us is that we seem to be at odds with a lot of TV critics on this one. The consensus seems to be that the first couple episodes were bad, but that the show improved as it went along. We partially agree with that. But even if the writing got tighter and the character work more cohesive, the show simply got duller and duller as it went on.

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Worse than the turn toward realism was the fact that the show was still clinging to bits of its fantasy-laden beginning, except they don’t quite work anymore. Let’s face it, the guru version of Grandmaster Flash made a lot more sense when the cameras were swooping and the tracks were bouncing and Big Annie was snorting and everyone was giving these outrageously broad performances. You play down that broadness and magic, but keep the mystical guru character and you wind up with some serious tonal issues. You can’t “sort of” have magical realism. You’re either doing it or you’re not and we liked The Get Down a lot better when it was serving up a purely Luhrmannesque look at the period.

But even with its flaws, The Get Down has one major advantage over the show it’s most likely to be compared to: Martin Scorsese’s and Mick Jagger’s take on the NYC ’70s music scene, Vinyl, which failed to ignite after one season on HBO. Vinyl was about the men behind the musicians, the agents and managers and businessmen of the recording industry. The Get Down, at its heart, is about where creativity comes from. It’s about how adversity and despair are often the primary drivers of art. It’s about how excruciating the creative process is, illustrating this major theme with two excellent representations of it: Shaolin and his crew figuring out and mastering Grandmaster Flash’s crayon riddle, and poor, disgusting Jackie Moreno, pathetically trying to come up with at least 4 consecutive notes that sounded good and sinking further and further into despair when inspiration fails to strike. These scenes, along with the fully explosive performances like Cadillac’s turn on the dance floor, Mylene and her girls singing along to “Turn the Beat Around,” (our favorite scene in the entire series) and the final, fist-pumping DJ battle, are what make The Get Down so worth your time.

But even that aspect of the show got a little muddled toward the end. What started out as a depiction of art and expression and the struggle to make it all come true, somehow morphed into long scenes where people discussed affordable housing opportunities for minority people in the Bronx. Don’t get us wrong, we’d watch a show about that, but we found ourselves frustrated by the political maneuverings, which dragged on way too long and gave the distinct impression that the creative team simply didn’t know where to take the story. Put it this way: Ezekiel is the clear star of the story in its beginning hours, but by the last couple of episodes, you wouldn’t be out of line if you thought Jimmy Smits’ Francisco Cruz was the true center of the tale. And because these 6 episodes end so abruptly and clumsily (that scene on the rooftop with Zeke and Mylene finding various ways to say “How am I going to reconcile these two warring sides of me? I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out together…”), it’s pretty clear to us that the show still doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it returns.

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The bingeing of these six episodes are definitely worth your time, though. Almost every single member of the cast (and it’s huge) is enjoyable to watch in some way. As we said, the art direction and costume design are both intensely on point and a treat for the eyes. There are fantastical musical performances galore -although there weren’t nearly enough of them. It’s almost like the show was afraid it would be seen as a musical. And even if the storylines got a bit muddled near the end (Zeke eating dinner with that rich white politico made no damn sense at all), that may be partially due to the fact that the show started elevating its background characters at this point, giving Mylene’s backup singers a lot more to do and delving into the various talents of The Get Down Boys. Jaden Smith could never be accused of being a highly talented actor, but he literally gets better and better in front of your eyes as the show gives his character more and more to do. Anyone with two eyes could see where his friendship with Thor was heading, but he did a really good job depicting the kind of confusion mixed with pure lust when you’re faced with something you denied yourself, probably because you didn’t know you wanted it.

(Yes, he likes boys.)

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, take some time to check it out. Just don’t go into it expecting much realism in the early installments and don’t expect too much magic in the later ones. If we had to give these 6 episodes a grade, it would be a strong B, with “needs improvement” scrawled underneath.

 

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[Picture Credit: Netflix]

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