First Impressions: Netflix and Baz Luhrmann deliver a unique and compelling series in The Get Down (USA, 2016)

Baz Luhrmann, over a decade worth of planning, and a whopping $120 million dollar budget sit behind The Get Down, an upcoming Netflix Original that boldly tackles the origins (and fundamentals) of Hip Hop with the Australian director’s characteristically fanciful touch. The result is a surprisingly unique, compelling series that marches to the beat of its own drum, fusing exaggerated musical theatre and grounded crime drama to shape a tale of creativity, love, art, and ambition grown from the decaying cracks of the Bronx in 1977.

Historically, the neighborhood has been used in cinema as the rough side of town, explored with snarling grit in the likes of A Bronx Tale and The Godfather. Here, The Boogie Down is a whimsical, fast-paced world of glitzy crime, defiant graffiti, spectacular church sermons, and underground parties – known as “The Get Down” – hosted by Grandmaster Flash (played by Mamoudou Athie).

The real Grandmaster Flash serves as associate producer of The Get Down. In fact, Luhrmann has had the good sense to work with many of hip hop’s pioneers to bring a heavy dose of authenticity to the series. DJ Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, Rahiem (of the Furious Five), and Afrika Bambaataa help bring the story to life, along with hip-hop historian Nelson George (supervising producer), graffiti legends Crash and Daze, and even Nas (executive producer). Luhrmann’s four-time Oscar winning wife Catherine Martin is another executive producer here, and there’s a lot of added oomph from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. Having such a hefty behind-the-scenes list can often spell disaster for a project such as this (the old adage of too many cooks comes to mind) but judging from the first three episodes, The Get Down, while messy in some parts, slips as often as the sure-footed Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a major character from whom the show draws much of its infectious energy.

The Bronx is a landscape both literally and figuratively on fire, volatile and seeping with frustration both at a personal and societal level. The personal is embodied in the lead character, Ezekiel Figuero, who is played with a fiery passion by young actor Justice Smith. Figuero lives with his Aunty and her boyfriend after the tragic death of his parents, crunching time as a restless outlier that values art and the expression of poetry though hides it from his classmates due to a lack of confidence. His persistent love for aspiring disco singer and friend Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) only reiterates his desire for a life much larger than that offered in between the cracks of urban decay, a desire which even leads him into a quest to find a rare remix on vinyl, the same record pursued by Shaolin Fantastic at the behest of DJ-slash-sensei Grandmaster Flash.

The above situation in the first episode is what strangely welds these two dissonant tones together, a skill rather unique to Luhrmann’s work. You’ve got the cartoonishly kung-fu influenced sway of Shaolin Fantastic’s roof-jumping, drug-running life, calling to minds images of a superhero watching over the rough and tough borough, driven by both music and a side job at the local underground club which houses its own fair share of idiosyncratic characters (particularly scene-stealer Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as disco-dancing club owner Cadillac). Meanwhile, there’s the coming-of-age grit that surrounds Ezekiel, the love lorn poet whose openness and courage is admirable and plays a big part in the nativity of hip hop. As these two characters converge, the sharp tonal shifts start to become more tolerable.

Being that The Get Down chronicles the transition from disco to hip hop in The Bronx, the show is almost always spinning to a beat, slowly building a mix that heightens the drama on screen as if the music is text itself. The mix flows too, almost like there was a session DJ sitting on the cutting room floor piecing together these scenes with clever selections of old classics that would go on to form the backbone of hip hop and give pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash the structure he needs to separate “the get down” from “the wackness” and pass this knowledge onto tutee Shaolin.

The anchor in all of this is the emcee, a role that feels natural with Ezekiel’s romantic and rudimentary rhymes. The power and expressiveness offered by the spoken word is the rose that grew from concrete, watered by that sweet spot that’s then looped and called the breaks. Together they move crowds and inspire respect in the outer boroughs of New York, placing the Master of Ceremonies as the storyteller who is able to channel urban life and give it meaning.

Dull adult characters and a ridiculously young gang who feel like they been ripped straight out of The Warriors do weaken what’s on display but if the six (and eventually twelve) episodes of the first season continue on the path of Ezekiel’s poetic power and focus on the artistic elements of hip hop then this may prove to be one of Netflix’s most charming – and insightful – originals to date. The garish 90 minute pilot is much too messy for one to be entirely confident in the show, but subsequent episodes have a tightened focus and feel like less of a tonal rollercoaster. There’s also the use of archived footage and of necessary touchstones like the historic NYC blackout – a figurative transition that led to one of the most unique cultures America and the world has ever seen – that keep the raw feeling as much a thriving part of The Get Down as the underlying rhythm on which it rests.

Little touches around the edge of The Get Down also speak highly for its ingenuity. For example, instead of the “Previously On…” segments, we are treated to original raps from Nas (who also voices the grown up version of Ezekiel) which condense the plot thusfar into easily digestible bits, keeping with the show’s musical flow in a creative, engaging way.

First Impressions Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Get Down premieres Friday 12th August 2016, exclusively on Netflix around the world. Six episodes will be released at once, with a further six episodes released in 2017.

Image credit: Netflix