Baz Luhrmann delivers a fantastical version of the origins of hip-hop on Netflix’s “The Get Down,” which serves up more theatre than street.
That’s not to say that “The Get Down” isn’t an achievement of cinematic style. It clearly reflects the more than $120 million Netflix put into the new series. From the wardrobe and sets to the licensing of both rap and disco classics, plus archival footage, one can see where the extended months of production and cash went. It certainly fits into Luhrmann’s body of work, which includes gilded epics like “Moulin Rouge,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“The Get Down” is a romanticized look at the Bronx of the 1970s, which led to a revolution of young teens who no longer felt that the playful swing of disco represented the harsh reality in which they lived. Instead, they were drawn to the more raw beat-driven moments in disco, the “get down.” DJs like Grandmaster Flash (played by Mamoudie Athie) were isolating those gritty, driven moments on records and extending them.
Luhrmann’s first TV series revolves around the relationship between Ezekiel (Justice Smith), the wordsmith, and Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), the DJ, as they discover the burgeoning hip-hop movement. Ezekiel is in love with childhood friend Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), the minister’s daughter and an aspiring disco singer. Both the music and Mylene become the biggest (and most heartbreaking) obsessions of Ezekiel’s young life.
There’s no shortage of good casting on the series: Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito, Jaden Smith, Daveed Digs, among many others.
Here’s the bottom line on “The Get Down”: The first 90-minute episode is directed by Luhrmann and it’s a work of visual art. At times, the momentum sways toward a sort of Bollywood style. At other times, it feels like a superhero movie, the Bronx as Gotham. It isn’t hard to get caught up in the drama of these lives, even if the writing isn’t as masterful as the visuals. The series never gets better than this first extended episode by Luhrmann. After that, other directors helm the show and it loses a bit of the premiere’s smooth touch. But the story does begin to feel more grounded.
In the end, “The Get Down” is probably not gritty enough for actual rap fans or those who lived to see the music come up. But for those of us with only a cursory knowledge of hip-hop history (especially in post-“Hamilton” times), it’s a fun, novel way to experience that world.
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