TV Review: The Get Down
Synopsis: Set in New York in 1977, this music-driven drama series chronicles the rise of hip-hop and the last days of disco -– told through the lives, music, art and dance of the South Bronx kids who would change the world forever.
REVIEW: 2016 is a big year for throwback television: from Martin Scorsese's short-lived Vinyl to Netflix's fan favorite Stranger Things, the theme for television seems to be to harken back to the seventies and eighties to mine the musical and cultural influence of those decades. Baz Luhrmann has always been good at utilizing pop culture and music in his works and The Get Down is no different. Telling a fictionalized origin of hip-hop, The Get Down is chock full of recognizable music from the days of disco, hip-hop, and punk which likely accounts for the massive per episode budget of $10 million. Netflix has a lot riding on The Get Down, financially, but I am not quite sure they are getting their money's worth out of this show. Yes, there is a great story to be told here, but after watching the first three episodes of the series I am not quite sure they are telling it.
The first chapter of The Get Down is a feature length episode that introduces the large cast of characters. There are recognizable faces like Jimmy Smits as political boss Papa Fuerte and Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito as a disco-hating preacher, but the cast is predominantly anchored by the young core actors including DOPE's Shameik Moore, PAPER TOWN's Justice Smith, newcomer Herizen Guardiola, and Jaden Smith. The cast are all really good in their roles, including Jaden Smith, and you almost feel as if this series were produced forty years ago. The pop culture references abound including shout outs for STAR WARS. Even hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash appears as a key character in the show. But, something doesn't feel quite right during the first episode.
Those familiar with Baz Luhrmann's films know the director is not known for subtlety. The Get Down is cut at a dizzying pace and drives you across New York City in seconds. Scenes are intercut without regard for continuity and are followed by archive footage of the city. Shots of actors portraying historical figures are placed alongside news footage making it hard to differentiate between what is real and what is fiction. In the hands of another filmmaker, this may not work, but Luhrmann manages to somehow pull it together. Where Luhrmann falls short is in the tone and style of the series. Shameik Moore's character, Shaolin Fantastic, is an almost mythical grafitti artist who acts as if he is the star of a bad kung fu movie. His fight moves are dubbed with sound effects from old school martial arts films and his mannerisms are completely over the top. While these same anachronistic touches worked perfectly in MOULIN ROUGE and ROMEO + JULIET, they feel a bit forced here.
For the first ninety minutes, you really have no idea what The Get Down is even about. Yes, we have our main characters who dream of being musicians but we also have subplots involving gangsters, drugs, and political machinations. I felt myself shoved from one emotional response to the next but never given enough to care about to feel invested in the series. After the first episode, I wasn't quite sure what I had just watched but I knew it was memorable. Thankfully, with Luhrmann out of the director's seat for the subsequent episodes, the show finally calms down and finds it's stride. The Get Down then, pardon the pun, gets down to business and begins telling us the story of these characters putting their mark on the New York music scene and innovating hip hop. Taking the over the top tone of the first episode out of the mix, The Get Down gives you a chance to start caring about these teenagers and where they are trying to go in their lives despite the city and the world at large setting them up for failure.
The Get Down is a very timely series. The primarily minority cast of Latino and African-American actors tackle topics that are relevant to the political climate of our society today, but it is the fact that these characters are empowered to exist and strive for their dreams without relying on skin color as a primary topic is refreshing. This is a series that stars minorities but is not only about race. This is a series about music and there is so much of it that you will find yourself looking up various artists and songs that you will be humming long after each episode ends. My biggest issue with the show is how it shifts from camp to melodrama almost instantly which can give the viewer some difficulty in determining just what they should be feeling as they watch. I found myself caring more about some characters more than others and I am confident they are not the ones the writers intended me to care about. Some characters, like villainous Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Cadillac, are so ridiculously over the top that I almost wish this was a show about them instead of these kids.
This series is a hard one to pin down because it has so much potential, but over the first three episodes I am not quite sure if they have found their groove. Netflix is spreading the thirteen episode first season over a couple of binge launches which may give them time to adjust their marketing. I am confident that this is not the show most people are going to be expecting based on the trailers nor is it something that is going to appeal to a wide audience. But, if you are a music fan, this show is far more rewarding than Vinyl and will definitely shed some light on an era of history that many are not familiar with. There is a lot of nostalgia to be consumed in The Get Down but I don't feel that the show rises above being a mixtape of the era. Hopefully the ten remaining episodes offer more.