The Get Down is the latest Netflix Original to debut on the streaming service, but is the 12 episode first season worthy of your time?
If you’re looking for an easy answer to that question, you’re not going to find it here. First, the stage must be set. Walking into this show without already being invested in the story of hip-hop’s birth isn’t recommended, but with the right background information, you may just find your next binge-worthy show.
The synopsis for the show reads:
The Get Down focuses on 1970s New York City — broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped — dying. Consigned to rubble, a rag-tag crew of South Bronx teenagers are nothings and nobodies with no one to shelter them — except each other, armed only with verbal games, improvised dance steps, some magic markers and spray cans. From Bronx tenements, to the SoHo art scene; from CBGBs to Studio 54 and even the glass towers of the just-built World Trade Center, The Get Down is a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco — told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world…forever.
The cast alone may be reason enough to put this on your list. Names that’ll catch your attention include Jaden Smith, Giancarlo Esposito, Jimmy Smits, and Daveed Diggs.
Smith plays Dizzee, an offbeat teen who loves graffiti art and is never quite afraid of saying what’s on his mind, no matter how weird it is. Esposito plays main character Mylene’s devoutly religious father who doesn’t want his daughter singing disco, while Smits plays his brother, Papa Fuerte, a businessman/gangster who cares for the people in his city and isn’t afraid to pull a few strings on their behalf. Diggs plays a grown-up Zeke who is on stage performing one of his songs and simultaneously narrating the story.
Those you may not have heard of include Shameik Moore of Dope fame, who plays the strange but charismatic Shaolin Fantastic. Then there’s Justice Smith (Radar from Paper Towns), who absolutely kills it as a young Ezekiel. Following him is Herizen F. Guardiola, who has previously only done Runaway Island and portrays Mylene with such dedication to her dream that you have no doubt in your mind this preacher’s daughter will see her name in lights some day soon.
But it’s perhaps those behind the scenes that will cause the most excitement. Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis created The Get Down, and it certainly has Luhrmann’s saturated cinematographic style all over it. Known for Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and The Great Gatsby, his name will be a draw for many.
Executive producing the project is Grandmaster Flash, whose character is the catalyst to the main events of the story. Flash’s involvement means the show will stay as historically accurate as possible and will also ensure flavor of the Bronx stays intact.
Joining Flash are legends such as Nas, Kurtis Blow, DJ Kool Herc, and Rahiem (of Furious Five), as well as Nelson George, a noteworthy hip-hop expert. Their involvement lends a credence and authenticity to the show that would be hard to fake otherwise.
If you’re still looking for more reasons to get into this series, I’ll give you one that caught my attention. The scope of this project is mind boggling. Luhrmann spent 10 years developing it and roughly two years producing it. Netflix has reportedly spent $120 million on the project, making it their most expensive series to date. The production quality rivals any big budget movie, and it shows through on screen.
But the real question is whether The Get Down is any good.
Any review is subjective, but I feel like ones for this show are even more so. The Get Down tells an intensely personal story of struggle in New York during the 1970s and the explosion of hip-hop onto the music scene. Hip-hop, like any art form, means something different to everyone. If you have any interest in this narrative at all, I recommend watching the show and deciding for yourself whether you want to stick it out through season 1, part 2, which airs sometime next year.
That said, my feelings are mixed on The Get Down. I love the premise and the characters. Justice Smith in particular is fantastic as a young Zeke. His raw, honest emotions grab at the heartstrings and you immediately find yourself cheering for this boy who just wants to love a girl and write rhymes for the rest of his life.
In fact, that’s a quality the show shares with Zeke. It feels unfiltered in a way that isn’t contrived. It’s telling a fictional story set against real events, and because of that, it is allowed to show you aspects of this world that mainstream media won’t touch.
The Get Down might be pretty cinematically, but most of its characters are not. Myelene’s father is a devout Christian, and yet he hits his daughter when she steps out of line. Her uncle, meanwhile, is undoubtedly a gangster, and yet he loves his niece more than anything else in the world. Shaolin Fantastic is supposed to be the leader of Zeke’s group, and yet he lets his emotions get the best of him, which may just lead to their downfall.
The people, like the city, have their problem areas, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth saving.
I will admit that one dimension of the show that truly bothers me is the tone. What I wanted from the series and what I got are two different things, but that is by no means The Get Down’s fault. Netflix has done an incredible job providing us with dark and gritty tales, bringing those in the shadows out into the light.
I wanted that from The Get Down, but like the show’s premise — which mixes disco and hip-hop — it is torn between two sides of the same story. On the one hand, the show provides a look at the Bronx when it was in disarray — buildings are regularly set on fire, gangs rule the streets, drugs are passed out like candy, and everyone is out to make a name for themselves.
On the other hand, the first few episodes highlight a style that meshes well with the time period, but not necessarily with the rest of the show. Farcical action sequences and dramatic dialogue that somehow still remains stilted was nearly cause enough for me to write off the series.
But I didn’t, and I stuck with it through to episode 6, the conclusion of the first half of the show. I’m glad I did.
There is plenty to love about The Get Down, even if you can’t get behind every creative choice. But at the end of the day, this show is about art, whether your particular art is spray painted onto a subway tunnel or recited into a microphone or pounded out through the soles of your feet on the dance floor. If you have a dream to make a name for yourself, all you have to do is be brave. The rest will follow.
Hip-hop has a bad reputation for being violent and misogynistic, and while that is certainly a trend in some corners, that is not all that rap encompasses. Since hip-hop is only just getting on its feet in The Get Down, graffiti art takes its place as the controversial topic if the hour. The older and predominantly white community sees it as an epidemic of vandalism, while the younger community of mostly minorities sees it as a meaningful expression of self.
This idea carries over into music, especially for Mylene. The story has been told before of a girl who wants to sing and of a mother or father who wants their child to keep her head out of the clouds. We’ve seen it play out time and time again, and yet it still works because it is a universal feeling of wanting something so badly and then achieving it despite everything in your life working against you.
And this is where the show truly shines. When the story is about music and art and being brave despite your fears, when the stakes are high and emotions are running rampant, The Get Down delivers on its promise to provide us with a window into the life of an era that not only transformed New York City, but would go on to transform the entire world.
The rhymes, whether it’s straight up poetry or it’s rapping in a freestyle battle, are beyond anything I expected. Like the show, they are honest and unfiltered, translating those emotions from the characters to the viewers as easily as Zeke translates his thoughts to a pad of paper.
Mylene’s song has been stuck in my head since the moment I heard it. I keep thinking about the breakdancing Shaolin did in the club, and those sweet, sweet jackets the boys put on when they got ready for their final battle. The staging around the musical numbers makes them worthy of your attention, and this is where the show truly finds its footing.
When The Get Down returns next here to conclude its freshman season, I’ll be interested to see if the tone straightens itself out and, of course, to see what happens to Zeke, Mylene, Shaolin, and all the others.