An Ambitious, Musical Mess

The Get Down, Baz Luhrman and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new Netflix series, is an unstructured mess. But it’s not the kind of mess that happens when a team doesn’t try. It’s the kind of mess that happens when an ambitious idea is doubled-down on instead of being simplified. A troubled production process gave way to a troubled show, one trying to find it’s own meaning even as the characters discover their own.

Much like the kids at the end of the season of the show, who are presented with choices about their identity, The Get Down tries to have it all. Ezekiel (Justice Smith) strives to stay in his internship and work on his music. Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) plans to balance his gang activities and his DJing, and Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) is able to find acceptance with her family while still singing disco. Our three focal characters don’t have to make a choice between the different parts of their lives, and the show, too, doesn’t make a choice. Its about so many things that each episode feels like it’s throwing more elements and ideas at you faster than you’re able to process them, then it drops those same ideas in the next moment to introduce something else. Characters and storylines float through the narrative like the whole enterprise is a fever dream that Kevin Corrigan’s Jackie Moreno might have on one of his binges.

The show often feels like it was created in the edit, which while not inherently a bad thing, means there is a lack of cogency to much of the proceedings. Scenes filled with tension are undercut by a sudden shift to a new location, only for us to return to the previous location with all of the tension and energy sapped away. There is a scene where Mylene beautifully sings a ballad while we’re shown scenes with the rest of the cast, and her vocals are inscrutably mixed down while the instrumentation blares. It’s so dissonant that it robs several quiet moments of connection between characters of any power or emotion.

Luhrman, for all his indulgent vices, can still craft a beautiful image. There are moments of pure beauty and dazzling energy in The Get Down. But when it comes to creating a story, or even allowing his characters to stay congruent, he falls flat. For every moment of Shaolin Fantastic standing triumphantly with the sun beating above him, we have elements like a manufactured conflict between him and Mylene, to supply an unnecessary tension to Zeke’s life (a plot point which doesn’t even pay off at this point…Zeke once again doesn’t have to choose between the two worlds).

There’s a lot to like about the show. A leading cast entirely made up of people of color is something to be celebrated no matter what. And when the show sings, it sings. The best scene comes in the fifth episode, where the Get Down Brothers, the titular group made by Shaolin and Ezekiel and their friends, are learning to rap and work together. It’s fun and funny, and best of all, truthful. Watching these kids enjoy one another and create music together is beautiful.

But the show never lives up to that scene’s promise again. It comes closest in the finale, where The Get Down Brothers prove themselves in a battle with a rival DJ group. It’s an explosive finish with each member of the group given the chance to shine, and while it’s a fist-pumping delight, it’s undercut by the show’s biggest problem beyond it’s confused storytelling…the sound mixing and editing is poisonously bad. There are moments during the various rap battles and even regular conversations where it’s almost impossible to decipher what the characters are saying.

There are moments that make this show worth visiting, but it’s so hopelessly interested in saying so much, and following too many stories while doing it, that it doesn’t feel as triumphant as it should. Luhrman went big on this show, $120 million dollar budget big, apparently, but he might have been better served by going small, and focusing on the personal journeys of his three main characters. Justice Smith, Shameik Moore, and Herizen F. Guardiola are stars who are fascinating to watch, but are underserved by a production that keeps their characters are indecisive as itself.