The Get Down: Season 1
Netflix have done it again. The Get Down exceeded my expectations and more. But what is ‘the get down’? That’s exactly what this twelve-part series directed by Baz Luhrmann seeks to define. In the six episodes that were released last Friday (12/08/16), we see the evolution of disco and the birth of hip-hop through the eyes of four inventive boys and their mentor. In an interview with Indie Wire, director Baz Luhrmann explained why he wanted to create a show like this: “How did so much creativity come from New York in that moment at that time? How did something so completely new, so totally unexpected, and so creative come about?” Along with the hardships they face in the Bronx, we witness the boys’ ambitions of riches and fame come to the fore as they pioneer a new genre of music.
One concern that I had initially upon hearing that Baz Luhrmann was to direct a Netflix original was that it might not be Baz Luhrmann-y enough. Fans of the visionary director will know exactly what I mean in saying this. Baz Luhrmann films burn bright and fast – how could his signature directorial style possibly be spread over six episodes of television? Scream: The TV Series ultimately fell at this hurdle. Unlike its 1996 cult original, the momentum, terror and anticipation were lost in the format of the television adaptation. Luckily for Baz, his move to the small screen didn’t jeopardise his style. Highly choreographed dance sequences, fast-paced chase scenes and genuine footage of 1970s New York that intersperse the drama leave BL’s monogram all over The Get Down.
When you look closely at some of the central storylines to The Get Down, it’s a series not too dissimilar from some of the director’s past projects. The intense love the show’s protagonist Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith) feels for his on/off girlfriend Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola) is reminiscent of characters like Nick Carraway, Christian (Moulin Rouge) and even Romeo Montague. This familiar passion combined with Zeke’s poetic skill is enough to bring shivers to even the most cynical. Other similarities between The Get Down and some of Baz’s films include the fact that it’s tied together by a single narrator (admittedly, in The Get Down it is a rather unique narrative). Future Zeke (played by Daveed Diggs with dubbed vocals from celebrity rapper Nasir Jones, better known as Nas) guides us through each episode using his talent as a ‘wordsmith’ or rapper. This provides the viewer with some security in knowing that Zeke will eventually make it and see his dreams become reality. As well as being reminiscent of his own repertoire, Baz seems to have drawn inspiration from classics such as West Side Story; we see both highly-structured dance scenes and fight scenes that couldn’t have come from elsewhere.
Having now seen all six episodes, I can conclusively say that there couldn’t possibly have been a better candidate for the lead in this series than Justice Smith. Despite never having heard of the young actor before, his performance as Zeke is so convincing that when he laughs, the viewer laughs, and when he cries, the viewer cries. It’s hard not to root for Zeke; we want to see him succeed despite all the drama and politics unravelling around him. There is no doubting of Smith’s inherent talent, but that’s a statement that must also be extended to the other young stars of the show.
Herizen F. Guardiola’s ethereal voice alone is reason enough to watch this series. Her character, Mylene, is the persuasion needed to download the soundtrack. One of the principal draws of the show itself is her relationship with Zeke. One moment on and the next off, it’s hard to tell whether or not the pair will find happiness together. Another standout star in the series is Jaden Smith (I couldn’t not mention Jaden in this post). He’s an actor for whom I have a lot of respect. In The Get Down, he’s a scene-stealer. His character, Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling, is one of the ‘fantastic four plus one’ and he’s immediately entertaining. He plays a quirky and eccentric street-art lover who comes face-to-face with his hero, fellow street-artist Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). It’s a performance typical of Jaden and, although often hilarious, isn’t without the sincerity he consistently brings to his roles. His character develops dramatically all the way up until the mid-season finale, where you may or may not be shocked.
Shaolin Fantastic is another extremely likeable character in The Get Down. Played by Shameik Moore, he’s a superhero-like street artist recognisable only by his red puma sneakers. It’s an interesting narrative device that Luhrmann employs; introducing us to the enigma dominating the boys’ attention thus emphasising their unawareness of the Machiavellian political goings-on by those such as the Mayor and the charismatic Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits). The Get Down is deceptively political in more ways than one, and when Zeke is challenged to dividing his time between political pursuits and ‘the get down brothers’, what decision will he make for his future?
Style has become a word synonymous with the filmography of Baz Luhrmann, and The Get Down isn’t exempt. Camp and theatrical disco suits provide for welcome comic relief in episode one with Cadillac, the King of Disco (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) fronting the movement. At times he’s flirty and funny, at others he’s formidable and intimidating. Cadillac poses a threat to almost every character other than his mother, but is absolutely among the most entertaining to watch.
The series isn’t dissimilar to the recent Empire nor Martin Scorsese’s HBO drama Vinyl, but it’s certainly unique in its own right too. One important point to note is that it isn’t Glee. There are no camp show-tunes nor cheap gags, it’s a serious show about serious issues. And if you’re feeling like it might not be your sort of thing, I implore you: watch up until the mid-season finale and then make up your mind. By then I guarantee you’ll be as hooked as I am.
It is true that The Get Down has fallen victim to harsh criticism from critics like AA Gill who termed the making of the show “blaxploitation” in the Sunday Times’ culture supplement. In my opinion, Gill couldn’t be further away from the truth. I think that a series like this feels more pertinent to now than ever before, and the shooting in the nightclub in episode one only intensifies these feelings. The current national conversation that America are having is one that concerns a number of contentious subjects; race and poverty being two of the primary issues in focus. In what is gradually proving to be an unpredictable election year, perhaps politicians ought to take a closer look at the real-life struggles, ambitions and livelihoods of the working class people they seek to win over – something that The Get Down does with ease.