Watch the trailer for "The Get Down."
To enjoy The Get Down, you must enjoy—at least a little bit—the grand, quixotic vision of Baz Luhrmann. You must be able to be swept up in the underdog story of Strictly Ballroom, see the beauty in the urban liveliness of Romeo + Juliet, and lose yourself to the theatrical love story of Moulin Rouge. (Let's skip over Australia—not even Baz can win 'em all.)
As such, you must be able to realize that, despite musical appearances by legends like Nas and Grandmaster Flash (who becomes a character in the show), this is not a story grounded in realism. Instead, it's a sweaty, music-soaked fever dream of a coming-of-age story that happens to be set in the Bronx of the 1970s, during the dawn of hip-hop. The world of the Boogie Down Bronx provides a rich tapestry—thanks to the co-production of music historian Nelson George— but it is just that: a textured backdrop.
The story is based on a young, sensitive and husky-voiced Ezekiel (played by Justice Smith), his love interest and muse Mylene, the underground graffiti artist actually named Shaolin Fantastic (lots of references to kung fu films and their sound effects), and a couple of gangster types with hearts of gold (including Jimmy Smits).
You get the feeling that Baz Luhrmann loves his characters.
We've seen the plot before, but that doesn't make it any less universal. But balancing a relatable story with Luhrmann-ian elements is a trick whose success is entirely dependent on whether the viewer finds things like gangsters dance-fighting for the love of a woman or poetry battles occurring behind DJ decks charming or cloying.
From Luhrmann, however, you get the feeling that he loves his characters, and the kids on screen (including a pretty heavy-handed Jaden Smith, who has lines like, "A life lived in fear is a life half-lived…. Ciao, for now") are the heart-blood of the show. The other treat? Well, this wouldn't be a Luhrmann production without un-believe-able costumes, and it's a joy to see such a diverse cast of skin tones, hair textures, and accents. But even with George's input, there is no real sensitive handling of what gave rise to the birth of hip-hop (Ed: Koch-era New York City politics do play a small role) don't expect any anthropological deep-digging.
But the show veers into near operatic territory, with frenetic pacing and big, action-packed scenes that feel like they are there simply because they "look cool." (And they do.) It's a genre piece, but that genre is coming-of-age via a romance à la Romeo + Juliet, minus the antiquated language (though, at some points, it sounds so scripted it could nearly be Shakespearean).
The Get Down is not the next Stranger Things—it's too campy for that (which is a saying a lot). But it has its charm, its own sense of cool, and a fondness for a moment when racial tension and urbanization gave way to both violence and the most popular music form of the last 30 years. One of the most fun moments of the feature-length pilot (yeah, settle in for that one) is when Ezekiel first hears the nascent sound of hip-hop and is so overtaken by its possibility and energy, he just howls into the night. Yes, it's heavy-handed at times, but it's an over-the-top love letter written by the master of the form.
The Get Down will be on Netflix starting tomorrow, Friday, August 12.