The Get Down, Netflix’s new series about the birth of hip-hop, has an unlikely lead character, one who feels things too deeply to speak up. Besieged by the decay of 1977 New York City as envisioned by co-creators Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, high schooler Ezekiel (Justice Smith) has withdrawn into himself. The private poems he writes help him grieve the death of his parents, both killed by gun violence. “Take a look around,” his teacher tells him after he refuses to read his work aloud. “The Bronx is a war zone. Our community is dying, and it’s going to take leaders to save it. That means you.”
But Ezekiel, called Books by friends, needs the motivation that comes from a beat behind him. His rendezvous with a gifted graffiti tagger named Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) and then with a young DJ known as Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) provide him the opportunity to pair his rhymes with music. Together, they pioneer in the nascent genre of hip-hop and find themselves exploring both the city and their own talents.
Add in a sweet romance between Ezekiel and aspiring disco singer Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) and you have enough story for a show—at least for the six episodes Netflix will issue on Aug. 12. (More episodes are due in 2017.) But The Get Down, like a verse crammed with three too many syllables, seems not to have been subjected to editing. It offers some of the more transcendent moments in recent TV memory, but to reach them viewers must slog through some of the dullest. Subsequent episodes are tighter, but the 90-minute running time of the pilot, which indulges itself in meandering explorations of several blind alleys, should nonetheless be regarded as a harbinger.
For instance, Mylene’s breaking into triumphant, sacrilegious song at her church is sensational, but it is preceded and followed by endless scene-setting involving her devout, uninterestingly mean father (Giancarlo Esposito, given nothing to do). And a political boss (Jimmy Smits) wheedling favors out of the Ed Koch mayoral campaign feels like a character on an even slower show. By the time The Get Down reaches a moment of meaningful triumph for Books and Shaolin, the audience is rooting for them to succeed, both because we care about them and simply so that we can wrap up this opening act.
As a film director, Luhrmann is a poet of bigness, but his impulse to concoct an overwhelming canvas works against him here. His movies skitter (often brilliantly) among radically different tones, with a voracious appetite for more being the only common thread. From Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge to the recent Great Gatsby, there’s no source material or period in history onto which the Australian auteur can’t successfully finger-paint emotionality. But in the more intimate medium of TV, The Get Down’s grand moments aren’t enough to distract from the drudgery around them. And when risky scenes miss the mark—like Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, as a grownup Books on the verge of stardom, lip-synching to the rhymes of real-life rap legend Nas—they feel unforgivably garish. When the magnetic young stars are offscreen, their absence looms.
This is Luhrmann at his best and worst, and he seemed to have found the right home with Netflix. The home-video and streaming service has a freewheeling rapport with show runners, resulting in unlikely successes like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, whose unorthodox premises, so new when they premiered, gave way, eventually, to consistency and familiarity. But The Get Down is different. Whether soaring in song or mired in minute 77 of 90, it’s impossible to imagine Luhrmann’s careening hip-hop opera ever coming to feel like a show one could use for a chilled-out binge session.
Nor does it fit into the nostalgia craze animating other series. Vinyl, HBO’s disappointing series about a 1970s rock label, wanted to make sure the viewer understood that the music it portrayed was important. Netflix’s Stranger Things, paying homage to 1980s sci-fi, is rigorous in its small details and story beats. There’s nothing so would-be edifying or so worked-over in The Get Down. It may have enlisted the icons Grandmaster Flash and Nas as creative guides, but it feels less like an argument for early hip-hop’s greatness than a bold repurposing of the genre to tell an archetypal, bighearted story of love and growing up. Hip-hop purists will surely reject the show’s approach to the most significant music genre of our time, relegated to a jumping-off point for melodrama.
The show’s best scene comes when Ezekiel and Mylene bond during the notorious 1977 blackout. One of the most infamous incidents in Big Apple history gave rise to arson and lootings, but the tumult is reduced to a gritty backdrop for two teenagers exploring what love might mean for them. With a palette suited for little more and nothing less than depicting the bold emotions of teenagers, The Get Down isn’t deft enough to do justice to epochal shifts in the culture. Some things—the political clashes and urban hazards that define a city—are too big, or too rooted in places other than passionate emotion, for Luhrmann to handle. In this moment, blessedly, they’re all background noise, and a melody is allowed to break out.
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