When Hip Hop birthed itself, kicking and screaming, on the street in the late 70's it was hard to understand it's merit. The bastard-child of disco, soul and funk; it was seen by some as the gaudy noise of the ghetto - stealing from artists that came before it and too messy and loud to pentrate. To others the Hip Hop beats coming from tenements and underground parties were the throbbing heartbeat of a culture finding it's own groove and escaping from the streets that were being destroyed by poverty, crime and inequality. Whatever your view, it's no wonder that Netflix' The Get Down is itself a little messy and fearless.
Apparently slowly gestating in the mind of Baz Luhrmann for 10 years, The Get Down puts it's narrative needle in the groove 1977's Bronx. A time of huge upheaval, socially and economically. While the Mayor's office neglected and abused it, poverty had it turn on itself with gang violence and routine arson. All the while disco's graceful swansong was giving way to something new. A kind of music that brought with it an attitude and ethos with undaunted rigour. It's a gold mine as far as TV series backdrops go, not to mention the built-in global fan-base of hip hop.
The series opening is as much a statement of intent as it is a scene-setter for the 5 episodes to come. It has the kind of hyper-reality familiar with musicals. While no one croons to highlight inner turmoil or explain their motivations, there is a whiff of West Side Story and you'd be forgiven for expecting a character to burst into song. While you settle into The Get Down, it unashamedly exudes deliberate funk. Whether it's the colours turned all the way up or characters with names that speak for themselves, like Cadillac and Shaolin Fantastic, the series sweeps you along like the best disco breaks. Directed by Luhrmann, the first episode is equal parts rawkus, uplifting, heartbreaking and enthralling. It's a challenging mix to beat-match emotionally. While the rhythm itself never quite tramples on itself when the next beat drops, it's a demanding fusion to take part in. That's not to say it isn't a rewarding one.
While The Get Down is careful to be mindful of history, it's not a slave to it. Confident in the story it wants to tell of it's characters and their journey, it doesn't get bogged down in historical check-boxing. Events of the time help to move the story along, like the New York Blackouts and turf wars. These may otherwise come across as disingenuous when running against the metaphorical whimsy of some of the more heightened moments.
Allowing yourself to be slightly fantastic allows room for occasional flights of fancy. During the first episode we're introduced to the myth of Shaolin Fantastic, a fabled street saviour able to leap across rooftops. Our crew of friends excitedly talk about the legend while shots of the daring-do play out. It's a clever gag that eases you in to the later hyperbole of character moments. Our burgeoning crew often display their gifts not unlike superheroes manifesting their powers for the first time. Mylene's show stopping turn as she leads a choir in church, in a last ditch attempt to grab the attention of a record producer is joyous. While Shaolin's determination to beat juggle can rival any heroes training montage.
It's not all apparition and metaphore. The Bronx is superbly rendered. From the scorching summer streets that make you want to fan yourself, to the charred buildings and rubble that make you want to hold your breath for fear inhaling dust, it's an immersive mirage that just adds to the already stifling atmosphere. While the crime, gang violence and moments of domestic abuse are sobering, they are never used as a device to cheaply manipulate - rather a commentary on the times our characters are living in. The actors do well to bring a humanity and heart to the proceedings. Ezekiel and Mylene are more a do-they-don't-they than will-they-won't they. One particular scene between them in the first episode is so raw in it's emotion it crushes, rather than breaks, your heart. Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito bring a slow-burning adversarial relationship to the two brothers wrestling for understanding and acceptance. Even the secondary characters orbiting our masters of ceremony have full arcs and surprisingly pivotal moments.
Thankfully, it isn't all harsh times and self-discovery either. The Get Down is just as much of a celebration of the times and the themes it's examines, making sure it pays homage to the legends of the time like Grandmaster flash and mention of the likes of Disco King Mario. Even Kool Herc gets a moment to shine. There are some well earned moments of joy and victory, not to mention laugh out flashes of humour as our boys try to bring the their act and their lives together.
It's true that The Get Down is a heady mix teetering on messy, but it's steadfast in the tunes it picks narratively and the journey it takes you on.
4* - The Miseducation of Wave Hill