Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Decadent, dazzling, disorderly, and altogether more than a little dizzying, Netflix’s The Get Down (its biggest original series to date, as well as one of the expensive television shows ever made) is unmistakably a work of Baz Luhrmann, who’s been drawn to theatrical romance and aesthetic excess like a moth to flame since his directorial debut. Its gluttonous premiere clocks in at a mammoth 92 minutes, resplendent with pop-pastiche posturing and far too many characters all clamoring for attention within its larger-than-life setting (1977 The Bronx by way of an adrenalized, NWA-influenced West Side Story). And the subsequent two episodes made available for review, though considerably tighter than their predecessor, still suffer from its commitment to an epic sprawl it can never quite do justice.
Still, Luhrmann’s ambitions are written plainly across every frame of the series. Each installment includes one if not more impressive song-and-dance sequences – the episode 2 capper, a riotous reclamation of identity and sexual passion from an altar stage, is a standout – and there are moments of stunning, arresting beauty to be found even outside of them, in the sexed-up sweep of a discotheque called Les Inferno and the communal catharsis of a neighborhood DJ party.
The creator struggles mightily with narrative cohesion and tonal consonance, but he has a seemingly genuine appreciation for the life-affirming spirit of hip-hop and rap that began in The Bronx, from its earliest origins amid the fervor of disco to its subversive arrival as the vox populi for a generation more intrigued by raw cultural commentary than opulent escapism.
That appreciation borders on worship in the premiere. As it welcomes audiences into The Get Down‘s magical realism-tinged world, a graffiti artist named Shaolin Fantastic, played by Dope‘s Shameik Moore, flips and twists through rubble-laden streets, his immaculate red Pumas standing out like Superman’s red S. He’s a perhaps too obvious symbol, of rebellion against the established order and a younger generation bursting to take an underground future mainstream, and it’s to Moore’s immense credit that the character doesn’t get bogged down by the somewhat unbelievable, contrasting shades of his character (Shao wants to learn to harness the “get down,” that immaculate section of a track that transcends its surroundings by gelling sonic ingredients into some higher form of artistry, from DJ sensei Grandmaster Flash, played by Mamoudou Athie, while still maintaining his life as a tag-happy superhero and navigating the easy money of prostitution and drug-running. Those disparate nuances clash, and it’s occasionally ugly).
To The Get Down‘s credit, on the other hand, Shao isn’t the protagonist, despite appearing as an obvious one, and is almost a mythic figure in its city-streets sandbox. The role of the protagonist is left to Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith, in a breakout performance), an orphan with an incredible gift for language and flow whom Shao pinpoints as his “wordsmith,” capable of providing the rhymes to complement his DJ ambitions. Zeke isn’t particularly motivated, and he’s haunted by his parents’ murders, but he does have one driving force: his love for Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), a gorgeous pastor’s daughter with dreams of becoming the sultry disco star her father (Giancarlo Esposito, wasted so far but with hints of an interesting arc) dreads.
Luhrmann’s passion for torrid romance catches fire in their dynamic; though the premiere initially makes Zeke’s affection out to be something of a schoolgirl crush on the girl next door, The Get Down finds organic and surprisingly compelling ways to invest viewers in their budding relationship, one threatened by varying ambitions and family circumstances.
What binds them together is a joined love for music, and the understandably theatrical ways in which that manifests throughout the series are often enthralling. It’s clear early on that Smith and Guardiola are quite possibly the best and most natural performers in the whole series, far outshining Esposito and a bevy of other older characters, from Jimmy Smits’ enterprising city councilman to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s deranged disco diva/resident psychopath Cadillac.
As the series goes on, it reins in some of its disparate thematic threads and starts to congeal into a more constrained and strongly guided narrative, one most prominently focused on Shao and Zeke’s search for the key to unlocking what they don’t yet realize is a bold and critically important new form of music that could entirely alter the culture of their hard-worn neighborhood.
The Get Down is a love letter to that creative process, written in big, colored Comic Sans; the show pulsates with energy, both carnivalesque (drawn from Luhrmann’s guiding hand) and period-accurate (mostly wrung from the music, much of which was composed by a crack team including the rapper Nas, but also from incredible production design and costuming). But it’s also, three episodes in, still a mess, struggling to reconcile its myriad components and wide variety of tones.
In places, The Get Down exalts in the religion of song and dance, dishing out musical numbers as colorful as they are cheerful. In others, it’s thoroughly committed to the brutal tragedy of some of its characters’ backgrounds and circumstances, seemingly attempting to do justice to the crime and collapse of The Bronx through docudrama footage that sometimes works and other times entirely disrupts the flow of The Get Down‘s otherwise heightened, cartoonish portrait of the times.
And yet, as jarring as some of the tonal inconsistencies on display in The Get Down can be, this is a series with big ideas that goes a surprising distance early on toward executing them. At its heart, the story is a traditional journey of exploration and defiance, of the downtrodden rising up with voices as loud as their minds are bright. But what makes this series sing above all else is its vivid and frequent grasp of the verve and vigor that drives its characters forward, that feeling of sacred, magical significance that thrills and fuels every budding artist and has the power to bring a particular wonder into lives of those without knowledge that it even exists. The Get Down is overflowing with it, very occasionally to its detriment but almost always to its – and our – tremendous benefit.
This rough-cut gem sings with a hard-worn yet lyrical beauty that more than compensates for its occasional narrative patchiness.