In 2016, the musical drama has a gangster problem. HBO’s Vinyl suffered from it, and Netflix’s The Get Down suffers from it, too. Both series have (or had) captivating central stories that center around the music industry in 1970s New York City, with Vinyl focusing on the turbulent changes at a record label and The Get Down tracking the rise of hip-hop and—to a lesser extent, it seems—the disco movement. But each of their main narratives takes several confusing detours into the world of organized crime.
This isn’t the most illogical writing choice in the world. The record business has had ties to criminal activity as long as it’s been in existence, and, in the case of The Get Down, many of the characters do hail from the South Bronx circa 1977. It only makes sense that drugs and gang violence would be part of the landscape in their everyday lives. But that’s the problem. In the first episode, it’s not just part of the landscape—it’s almost the primary focus of the entire first half. Even worse, the show’s heavies are so cartoonish that it saps the dramatic weight out of their misdeeds. For instance, early on, teenage protagonist Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith) tearfully (and privately) recites a poem to his teacher about his mother getting shot by a bullet meant for his father. It’s a gut-wrenching moment that shows why he’ll eventually have such an emotional connection to rap music, a genre that, even in its most infantile stage, encourages confidence and filters pain through celebration.
But later on when we meet disco overlords like club-owner Fat Annie (Lillias White) and her son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)—both so flamboyant and over the top, they could be in an R-rated version of Dick Tracy—the crime element of The Get Down suddenly doesn’t seem that frightening. When rival hoods shoot up Annie’s club, Les Inferno, slow-motion gunfire splatters blood on a disco ball and sends gooey chunks of birthday cake flying all over the place, all while dramatic opera music thunders in the background. The show wants us to take this very seriously. And if it doesn’t, then the sequence—so reminiscent of Scarface’s nightclub shootout in the worst way possible—clashes with the believability of the main cast’s constant fear of violence.
The tonal contrast no doubt comes from Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann, who co-created The Get Down with Pulitzer-winning New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. To his credit, his hard-on for kaleidoscopic filmmaking does frequently serve the show well in terms of eye candy (the $10 million-per-episode budget probably helps, too). In between the main arc, we get visually generous smash cuts of 1970s NYC, characterized by archival footage as well as grained-out B-roll, ace costuming, and distressed set-pieces. All of this builds an environment that’s both ravaged and artistically elevated by graffiti and what looks like some truly killer deleted scenes from The Warriors. The city’s always had a unique energy to it, and Luhrmann taps into that like no other director in recent memory.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Anything with Luhrmann at the helm is undoubtedly going to look good. What’s more shocking is that, in its back half, he’s actually able to dial down his extravagance and deliver some realistic scene-work. After the shootout at Les Inferno and getting romantically rejected by his classmate and musical partner, Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), Ezekiel and his pals hook up with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a storied hustler already embedded in the burgeoning hip-hop community. At first, he and Ezekiel are rivals hunting down the same advance copy of a record (Ezekliel wants it for Mylene and Shaolin wants it for his mentor, Grandmaster Flash), but once they settle their differences, he brings Zeke and his crew to the joyous gathering of the title. There, Ezekiel transforms his poetry skills into rap lyrics for the first time during a freestyle battle. Adding to the allure of the night is a DJ set from Flash (dead ringer Mamoudou Athie), bolstered by 16 bars from his Furious Five cohort, the late Keith Cowboy.
There’s a decided ease to the get-down sequence and the subsequent scene at Shaolin’s apartment. Part of this is due to the invested yet casual performances from the actors—along with Smith and Moore, Skylan Brooks, T.J. Brown Jr., and (gasp!) Jaden Smith give the Stranger Things kids a run for their money as best young ensemble of the year. But part of it also has to do with Luhrmann—perhaps under the more measured influence of Guirgis—just calming the fuck down for a second and letting the forces of music, nostalgia, and youth work their magic. When the boys excitedly head to Shaolin’s rooftop to see the glowing zoom of the nearby el train, it’s just as visually evocative as the show’s stylized montages.
Some of the episode’s more realistic story beats don’t land quite as well, mostly because “Where There Is Ruin” spends so much of its 90-minute runtime focused on the exaggerated nonsense, including backroom exchanges between the associates of Mylene’s uncle, Papa Fuerte (Jimmy Smits), a local politico looking to improve his community. Between his subplot, all the business at Les Inferno, and a framing device with an adult Ezekiel (Nas in verse and Hamilton’s Daveed Digs in appearance), threads such as Mylene’s relationship with her abusive, Pentecostal-pastor father, Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito), get rushed. That results in heavy-handed lines like “I will beat you all night to separate from you and El Diablo!” Nuance simply takes more time than their scene together is given.
Still, I’d rather see The Get Down trying to play it straight rather than surreal, and if that means some clunkiness here and there, I’m all for it. So let’s hope these next five episodes scale back on the colorful rogues’ gallery. The origin of hip-hop—and the characters affected by it—is interesting enough without it.
- Welcome to The Get Down! Reviews will be posted every other day at 3 p.m.
- With Vinyl canceled, it’s good to be writing about another music-centric show. From my second review onward, I might also restart the practice of keeping track of all music used in the show and posting it here. We’ll see…
- The name Fantastic Four Plus One reminds me of Ponderosa Twins Plus One.
- I know this probably isn’t intentional on the creators’ part, but for me, the repeated shots of Shaolin jumping from rooftop to rooftop recall the album cover of Mos Def’s The Ecstatic.
- Shaolin’s obsession with martial arts and comic books would make him a great candidate for Wu-Tang Clan membership. I know he’s fictional and comes from The Bronx rather than Staten Island or Brooklyn, but still.
- I’m only watching one episode at a time, so I promise that I don’t know one way or another, but does anyone else feel like Shaolin’s going to get killed at some point? Ezekiel’s narrations just seem to point to that.
- I’m also wondering how long Jaden Smith will stick around on the show, as he’s only listed as part of the recurring cast.
- Another contender for worst line of the episode: “How would your mother and father feel if they were alive and heard you talking like that?”
- “God bless those who win early when the night is long.”
- “If you don’t know who Kool Herc is, you need to ask somebody.”