Television Review: “The Get Down” is “Electric Boogaloo” at three-quarters the wattage.
“The Get Down” on Netflix is just the damndest thing. In broad terms, the show is a sprawling, almost unthinkably messy ensemble drama about a very specific time in New York City’s post-war cultural development. I refer to the era that charted the birth of hip-hop as an art form, albeit one that was usually practiced in abandoned warehouses and on bombed-out inner city blocks, and also the influx of street art and ground level social justice that followed in its wake. But “The Get Down” is not merely content to be one thing and call it a day. The show also aspires to be a splashy musical, a cheeseball romance, a quasi-fantastical adventure series about a ragtag gang of teenaged hip-hop enthusiasts, and probably a few other things that I can’t think of at the moment. It is by turns thrilling and deadly boring, amateurish and startling in its ambition, alive with blasts of energy and style and yet curiously inert much of the time. What the hell are we supposed to make of this thing? The show does not lack for the get-up-and-go drive that fuels its main characters: if anything, “The Get Down” tries to be too many things at once and ends up overextending its reach, ending up as a fascinating but deeply flawed Frankenstein monster of adolescent romance, coming-of-age melodrama and bleary-eyed yearning for the Big Apple of yore. I’m sure there will be lots of people who love it, but the show’s frenetic buzz left me more exhausted than excited — not, I suspect, the creator’s intended effect.
The parallels between “The Get Down”, co-created by “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann and New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, and another recent prestige series about the music scene in New York are inescapable. I refer, of course, to “Vinyl”: Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s bloated, if unfairly maligned attempt at depicting the chaos and hedonism of the record business in 1970’s. Granted, “The Get Down’s” colorful, visually appealing pilot only cost $10 million, whereas the whopping $100 million pilot for “Vinyl” was essentially a two-hour Martin Scorsese B-side (no real pressing need to check out the rest of the tracks, if you dig what I’m saying). And as with “Vinyl,” “The Get Down” lays the groundwork for a world very much worth exploring, and then gets distracted by the wrong story. “Vinyl” should have been about anyone other than Richie Finestra: the character represented audience’s growing fatigue with tortured white male antiheroes, though there were usually fitfully engaging mini-dramas and solid performances orbiting around the character. Similarly, “The Get Down” often opts for bullet-ridden blaxploitation homage that feels ripped out of “Black Dynamite” rather than “The Mack” — that is to say, winking rather than sincere. And like “Vinyl,” “The Get Down” is far more successful when it focuses on the music at hand rather than all the silly gangster business.
For some, witnessing the flamboyant stylistic fireworks of Mr. Luhrmann will be reason enough to tune into “The Get Down”, and to be fair, it’s a trip to see the ostentatious Luhrmann try and spread his wings in the T.V. wheelhouse. To be fair, Luhrmann’s penchant for hyper-vivid technical overkill has never been my thing. I like his trashy, steampunk-y update of “Romeo & Juliet” starring babyfaced Leo Dicaprio and Claire Danes as the nominal star-crossed lovers, but his subsequent films often feel puffed up with hot air and curiously short on substance. This was especially true of his egregiously overinflated take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which reduced one of the finest novels in American history to a migraine-inducing three-hour bacchanal inexplicably scored to modern rap tunes. Luhrmann only directs the first of the five episodes I’ve seen, and it’s easily the least interesting: the director has never been one for fluidity, and the pilot episode of “The Get Down” often feels like three or four decent movies stitched into one confused final product. You can’t say it wants for ambition, but like a lot of Luhrmann’s work, at the end, you just feel wiped out, not exalted. The editing is also noticeably bad, although you can imagine the creative team justifying the show’s cutting — which feels as though it was blended through a Cuisinart — as being “kinetic” or “dynamic” when it’s really just borderline-incoherent.
The protagonist of “The Get Down” is one Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero. Zeke is a lanky teenaged poet with an Afro and a surly attitude who is first seen reciting a heartfelt rap verse about the time his father took a bullet. It’s a wrenching moment that is thrown off course when Zeke’s cartoonishly boisterous stepfather intrudes in the scene, but this is just the first of “The Get Down’s” many instances of tonal atrophy. Zeke hangs around with a group of like-minded young men: all black, intelligent and quite funny, and also mainly concerned with chasing down records, cool graff and girls. Zeke, for instance, has his eyes on the local neighborhood babe, Mylene Cruz (luminous newcomer Herizen F. Guardiola). Mylene is a budding disco starlet who nevertheless struggles to escape from under the thumb of her overbearing religious father (“Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito) and the slightly unscrupulous influence of her uncle, Papa Fuerte (T.V. vet Jimmy Smits), a South Bronx mover and shaker/political boss with his hands in a dirty pot.
The romance between Zeke and Mylene is actually quite charming, and the two lead performers exhibit the lived-in, often smoldering chemistry of young lovers who are just starting to learn how much they like each other. So it’s a shame that so much of the side plot surrounding these characters and their respective hopes and dreams feels so inconsequential. Smits, for instance, plays the hell out of Papa Fuerte, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The guy has been doing this for so long and is such a consummate pro that he can make even the most tired line readings sound effortless. But what are we to do with a character that exists as little more than a checklist of brooding Latino bad guy clichés? Ditto for Esposito’s uptight pastor: the onetime Gus Fring translates the man’s pious sense of moral tunnel vision with a compassion that’s not on the page, but c’mon, he’s only the 107,893rd religious dad in the history of film and T.V. who doesn’t want his daughter to go a-disco dancin’.
Things take a turn for the surreal when the show trots out the character of Shaolin Fantastic, played with understated magnetism by Shameik Moore from last year’s superior hip-hop farce “Dope”. Shaolin is an aspiring beatmaker who studies under the tutelage of famous early hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash. He explains to Zeke and his friends that the tri-state borough is divided up into warring sets of DJs — like gangs, but with boomboxes and breakbeats instead of pistols. It should surprise no one that Kool Herc pops up for an unexpected cameo in what turns out to be the first season’s best episode. Shaolin is also a gigolo who is essentially the sex slave and gofer for a ferocious mama lion of a gangster named Fat Annie (Lillias White), who owns and operates a dance club called Les Infernos with her fearsome son named Cadillac (no shit). He’s also, as evidenced by some distractingly over-the-top fight scenes in the second episode, apparently a ninja — or at the very least, a frighteningly qualified martial artist.
Basically, Shaolin Fantastic is “The Get Down’s” version of a strapping young black superhero, which is a great idea on paper, and one that might have worked had there not been such a disparity between Moore’s considerable charisma and literally everyone else in the cast. Anytime the focus is on Shaolin, the show stops slouching and adopts the sharp, lively rhythms that speak to the city of New York itself. Whenever Moore is offscreen, though, the show falters. There are also a few side characters who should have probably been jettisoned from the season entirely, like Jaden Smith’s tired characterization of a self-consciously “weird” street artist and the normally reliable Kevin Corrigan as a drugged-out record producer whose cliché-filled scenes feel like they were scrapped from “Vinyl’s” early drafts.
I’m all in favor for a show that casts actors of color in predominant roles and treats the art form of hip-hop with the respect it deserves. I also applaud Luhrmann and Guirgis’ refusal to wallow in poverty porn, as if telling a story in a humorless, “naturalistic” fashion somehow makes the endeavor more itself worthy of serious consideration. As far as I can tell, “The Get Down’s” aim is to channel the sense of collective youthful liberation that typically occurs a time of immense social change through an unfiltered mix of song, dance and melodrama. And there are moments of “The Get Down” that are truly transcendent, including most of its spectacular and emotionally compelling penultimate episode. But too often, “The Get Down” doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a randy teen comedy, a tapestry of music and culture in New York or some kind of broad-strokes political statement. The show also leans too heavily on nostalgia when it’s not sure where to go — a problem that also plagued Netflix’s other hot show of the moment, “Stranger Things”. Like Spike Lee’s tonally similar “Chi-Raq,” “The Get Down” is a vital, deeply felt and ultimately unformed work whose conceit alone means that it deserves to be seen, even in spite of its many frustrating elements. I just wish that Luhrmann, Guirgis and company had imbued their show with a little bit of Shaolin Fantastic’s otherworldly sense of purpose. I would watch that show in one sitting.
Grades: “Where There is Ruin, There is Hope for a Treasure,” C+. “Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames,” B-. “Darkness is Your Candle,” B. “Forget Safety, Be Notorious,” B-. “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly,” A-.