Launching on August 12 on Netflix, The Get Down is an ambitious, exciting and yet sometimes unwieldy affair. The musical drama created by Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis and set in 1977 NYC can be fickle in its aesthetics but also a hell of a lot of mash-up fun, with a strapping cultural and personal coming-of-age story at its hip-hop-history core. As I say in my video review above, The Get Down is not just the sum of its much-sampled parts but all about the groove – even if it takes a bit to find it.
Sprawling like the Sugarhill Gang’s iconic 10-verse “Rapper’s Delight” or the Beastie Boys’ multi-textured and now-revered 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, The Get Down, as its much-viewed teaser indicated, can be deceptively overwhelming – especially in its 92-minute pilot helmed by the widely talented Moulin Rouge director himself. A partial and heavily fictional re-imagining of sorts of the life of Nas, one of the top-ranked MCs in hip-hop and an EP on the series, the solid core of this depiction of the early days of hip hop and the beginning of the end of disco is a bonfire of power, creativity, corruption and status – the endless NYC cycle, through decay and gilded ages alike.
Having had a bumpy and, with a budget of over $110 million, some would say big-boned path to debut, the first six episodes of the Sony Pictures Television-produced series are thick with news footage and archival video from what was then a seemingly rotting Big Apple. Layered on top with the look of the photography of Jamel Shabazz, Walter Hill’s 1979 The Warriors, kung fu, 1983’s Style Wars doc, period-specific Pumas and much much more, I say think of this complicated, Bronx-based depiction not as a classic album but a very good and rich sampling binge-worthy one that truly kicks in around Track 3 or so.
Of course, Luhrmann being Luhrmann there’s a battle, where the DJs and the MCs face off, and there’s love on the dance floor, where music swells and you get your hands up in the air for the payoff of that one true moment only a song can bring – but it works, repeatedly. Will the crew employ the same approach in the next set of episodes scheduled to be released in early 2017? One assumes to some extent.
Still, emerging over the first few episodes that are out next week, the strong performances of Justice Smith as parentless teen street poet Ezekiel “Books” Figueroa and Dope alum Shameik Moore as his DJ mentor and partner in the groove Shaolin Fantastic establish a deep beat here. However, Herizen F. Guardiola as aspiring disco queen and Books’ soul mate Mylene Cruz and Jaden Smith as graffiti artist Dizzie add the heart.
With Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito and Eric Bogosian also in the large cast, another ingredient of authenticity comes from the use of real-life and real-time characters such as then-mayoral hopeful Ed Koch, drug kingpin Nicky “Mr. Untouchable” Barnes and the legendary Grandmaster Flash, who is a producer on the series and played by Mamoudou Athie on-screen. The Get Down further has sought to keep it very real by having not just Nas and Grandmaster Flash onboard but author Nelson George as a producer, Bronx-raised Seth Zvi Rosenfeld as co-EP, along with old-school powerhouse Kurtis Blow plus DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa as consultants for what can seem like a hip-hop masterclass at times.
Look, an Empire isn’t built every day and, as HBO’s now-canceled Vinyl from Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese and Terry Winter ultimately sadly revealed and Showtime’s Roadies from Cameron Crowe makes clear, music-based dramas are hard to get right. Once it gets going, Luhrmann’s streaming-service debut has a lot more hits than misses as this version of the Bronx 1977 creatively burns brightly.
So check out my The Get Down video review above and tell us, will you be getting down next week?
This review originally ran on August 3, 2016