In many ways, Baz Luhrmann has been making versions of West Side Story for the last 25 years. His Cinderella inspired Strictly Ballroom in 1992 showed the world his talent for putting artistic passion on screen. The hypertextual Romeo + Juliet updated the story that inspired the Arthur Laurents/Berstein/Sondheim musical, while Moulin Rogue! smashed up La Boheme with Luhrmann’s meta-aware version of Orpheus.
The ambitious THE GET DOWN not only takes its time to explore some more star-crossed lovers, but does it against the backdrop of an ethnically diverse New York gang scene in 1977 that would have made Laurents spin. Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith) is Luhrmann’s latest penniless poet, caught between an unwillingness to stand out and a desire to conquer the world. His unrequited love for Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola) clashes with her desire to break free of her preacher father and pursue a singing career. Meanwhile, wannabe DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) has his own dichotomy to deal with, worshipping at the altar of DJ Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) but also serving the whims of powerful nightclub owner Fat Annie (Lillias White) and her gangster son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Luhrmann, who is credited as and executive producer and co-creator alongside Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed the feature-length first episode “Where There is Ruin, There is Hope for a Treasure,” and it’s here that his presence is most felt. The conscious visual noise of the Bronx in the 1970s is recreated using a mixture of grainy archival footage and newly created pieces, an extension of the ambitious digital tracking shots that gave Moulin Rouge! it’s distinctive look. This is extended into the music and the production design as well, a completely authentic collection of rhymes, clothing, and graffiti, albeit told and performed with a modern sensibility.
Narratively, THE GET DOWN follows a mystical hero’s journey, but never goes completely into the realms of Luhrmann’s expected magical realism. Dance sequences are performed within the context of nightclubs, for example. Like the recent graphic novel series Hip-Hop Family Tree, it’s a narrative version of the birth of hip-hop (not to mention punk and disco) against the infamous 1977 New York blackout that led to the exponential growth of the genre outside the Bronx. Nominally telling the loose story of the the Funky 4 + 1’s creation, and framed by an adult Zeke (Daveed Diggs, dubbed by rapper Nas) rhyming narration at the top of each episode, the connected stories of the individuals weave a rich snapshot of a singular point in a politically turbulent time, blending fact with fiction to form something new.
The mostly young cast is excellent, especially Justice Smith who lends real gravitas to the earnest male lead. Jaden Smith, as the trippy graffiti artist Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling, is a revelation in a sub-plot that allows the show to explore the complex mix of discovering artistic ideas and sexuality. Jimmy Smits evolves from power-hungry anti-hero to something far more complex in the short series, avoiding some of the one-note character holes he may have fallen into. Yet it’s Giancarlo Esposito who is both transformed and electric as the conservative preacher watching his narrow world view fall apart in the face of a changing New York.
THE GET DOWN is not always the joint, and even at a truncated “half” season allows some lyrical “wackness” to slow down the rhythm and flow of the series. Yet from the first beat, the series has an understated tension to it that is building to something big, and when the needle finally drops on the climactic beat battle, lounge rooms across the world may just turn into impromptu block parties. THE GET DOWN is something entirely new for both Netflix and television generally, and we anxiously await for the next track in this record.
2016 | US | Executive Producers: Baz Luhrmann, Shawn Ryan, Catherine Martin, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Marney Hochman, Thomas Kelly, Paul Watters, Nasir Jones | Cast: Justice Smith, Shameik Moore, Herizen F. Guardiola, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jimmy Smits | Distributor: Netflix | Episodes: 6 | Rating:★★★★ (8/10)