Two turntables and a microphone. Hip-Hop in its purest form is remarkable simple. An MC and a DJ is all you need, or as Rob Base & DJ EZ-Rock would say, "It takes two to make a thing go right". It's origins, however, are incredibly complicated, springing up as a form of non-violent protest to the injustices faced by minorities in 1977 New York. It lurked beneath the surface, clandestinely occupying the space once reserved for the booming disco craze that filled glittery, drug-filled nightclubs. But it took time for hip-hop to find its groove, and before then disco ruled. The two sounds are inextricably linked both in form and substance; people who lived on the fringes breaking free from the bonds placed on them by society.
Hip-hop and disco signaled the drumbeat to rebellion, and that's the spirit Baz Luhrmann tries and mostly captures in The Get Down, his open love letter to the sound and style of the '70s. If you know anything about Luhrmann, the Australian director behind Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and Moulin Rouge, then it should come as no surprise the whole thing wildly over the top, garish, crazy expensive, and maddeningly inconsistent. To put in context, The Get Down cost more per episode than HBO's Game of Thrones, and that shit has flying dragons in it. Luhrmann cooked up the idea and directed the first episode, and hoped to be done with it from there, until he was basically forced into overseeing the remaining five episodes. The final six episodes will air some time in 2017.
Luhrmann's participation in the debut 90+ minute episode sets a dizzying standard that the other episodes don't quite achieve. Under his guidance there is a surreal, blaxploitative quality that gives way to something leaner and tougher. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Luhrmann doesn't really do "street level"? He's better at whipping up cool montages, of which there are many, and elaborate musical performances, of which there are many more. The series is about the origins of hip-hop in the disco era, set against the backdrop of the civil unrest of the period. Black people weren't just second-class citizens, but their culture was being co-opted and homogenized at every turn. R&B and Soul no longer seemed to belong to them. Hip-hop was a way of taking it back while creating something unique to call their own.
Old school hip-hop heads will flip over the story, which combines traditional coming-of-age elements with modern mythology that places real-life legends Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc as virtual gods. Ezekiel (Justice Smith, a true find) is a Brooklyn high schooler orphaned by his parents, drowning himself in poetry and piano to escape the pain. He's found love, or the prospect of love, with his longtime friend Mylene (Herizen Guardiola, as soulful a debut as I've seen), a pastor's daughter and a vocal dynamo with dreams of becoming a disco star. But her father (Giancarlo Esposito) thinks disco music is the work of the devil and will have none of it. Any aspiring rapper needs a crew, and Ezekiel has a colorful bunch with Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), graffiti artist Dizzy (Jaden Smith), and Boo-Boo (TJ Brown Jr.), all of whom are trying to be like Ezekiel and survive the Boogie Down Bronx. Meanwhile, Ezekiel also encounters and becomes friends with the awesomely-named Shaolin Fantastic (Dope star Shameik Moore), who in the first episode as a sort of "ghetto Shang-Chi". He flips around, scales walls, practices martial arts and parkour, tags his name on everything, and seems to be lurking around every corner. It's like one of Netflix's Marvel characters somehow wandered in and took over.
In a place where creative pursuits are the only means of escape, everyone has a plan for leaving the Bronx. For Shaolin it's serving as the padewan learner to his DJ guru, Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who drops pearls of Yoda-like wisdom that often serve as individual episode titles. Mylene, in hope of getting her demo tape to a powerful producer, sneaks off into the nightclub, "Les Inferno", the hood's epicenter of drugs, violence, and music. It's here that some of the series' darkest elements emerge and never quite leave. Luhrmann skates by them in his episode, with brief flashes of urban decay, homelessness, and political corruption. Latter episodes delve into how easily the soul of a city can be corrupted by the people in power and those who stand by and let it happen. Early on we see Ezekiel refusing to read a poem in class out of fear of how others will react, when it's exactly his intelligence and creativity that could be what the city needs to survive. Further episodes introduce us to Papa Fuerte (Jimmy Smits), a councilman willing to do some shady things for the benefit of his city.
Graffiti, break-dancing, emceeing, and DJing, the four elements of hip-hop, are represented in all of their glory as rungs on the ladder of hope. But hip-hop isn't something most people knew about at the time, and it isn't until Ezekiel attends the titular "Get Down", a party where Grandmaster Flash is on the wheels of steel, that he realizes the true potential of the rhymes he had been so scared to share. There's power in music, there's power in verse, if only he can find the strength and courage to use them.
This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of everything Luhrmann tries to squeeze into six episodes. We haven't talked about Shaolin's ties to a local mob boss named Fat Annie (Lillias White), or the coked-out producer (Kevin Corrigan) who becomes part of Mylene's career, or Dizzy's continued search for spiritual enlightenment or something. There's also murder, infidelity, sex, and block parties, intercut with archival footage that serve as distracting historical touchstones, filling in gaps there simply isn't time to cover. Luhrmann's vision of the era is basically Romeo + Juliet with a touch of Walter Hill's The Warriors thrown in. The oft spray-painted visuals are a nice addition, though, with the titles zipping by alongside a speeding subway train. Rather than provide a traditional recap (always an annoyance when puling a Netflix binge) Luhrmann cleverly provides a little mini video performed by an older Ezekiel (played by Daveed Diggs with vocals by Nas, also an exec-producer) who has apparently grown up to be a huge rap star. I've never been so delighted to watch the same footage over again.
Justice Smith is incredibly charismatic as Ezekiel. He doesn't look like much, and that afro is ridiculous, but the moment he speaks you're hooked. He's got the spirit of a warrior and a poet, which is perfect because that's the tug of war going on within Ezekiel throughout the series. Moore's performance as Shaolin Fantastic will get the most attention but to me the character is disappointingly generic after a dynamic first episode. Smits is so good that his character should take more of a central role in the next season, while Guardiola is captivating whether she's singing or working opposite Smith. I found myself gravitating to many of the supporting characters as my favorites, though. I never thought I'd have anything good to say about Jaden Smith but he's perfect as Dizzy, a dreamer grappling with some serious identity issues. And I couldn't get enough of Stefanée Martin and Shyrley Rodriguez as Mylene's spirited and foxy best friends, Yolanda and Regina.
The Get Down never really feels like episodic television, but like one long 6-hour movie. Rather than giving each episode a traditional arc it feels like the entire season is that arc, and even as it concludes with a rousing rap battle between Ezekiel's crew and a rival, the arc doesn't seem to be over. It's an approach that runs completely counter to what we expect out of Netflix, and I'm not sure it makes total sense. But then again, people didn't understand hip-hop when they first heard it, either, and look how that turned out.
Rating: 3 out of 5