What a spectacular mixed bag The Get Down is. This afros-and-wide-lapels street fable from Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis might be to current American television what 1941, Apocalypse Now, and Heaven’s Gate were to American film in the 1970s and ‘80s: overscaled and wildly self-indulgent but still thrilling, imaginative, and personal; the kind of oddity that young critics reclaim as a lost masterwork a few years after it’s faded from public view, and that websites like this will celebrate with oral histories. Half the time you’re watching it, you’re wondering what in the bell-bottomed hell its creators were thinking. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, sometimes a good thing, but the unstable tone keeps getting in the way of the sincerity that the writing and acting tries so hard to project. It’ll probably get slaughtered by music buffs, like HBO’s rock-drama Vinyl before it, for being ahistorical. Whoever decided to sell The Get Down as a series about the birth of hip-hop should be fired; it’s not anything remotely close to that — in comparison, Vinyl has a historian’s monk-like rectitude — and anyone who watches the show expecting it to be that is going to be disappointed, maybe angry. The show is less of a music-industry story or a broad-canvas look at the birth of a scene than an old-fashioned big-city melodrama with splashes of fantasy.
It treats the early days of hip-hop as mere background for Romeo and Juliet–styled romance, blaxploitation gangster violence, and urban mythmaking. Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) is literally a guru here, a benevolent musical cult leader dispensing aphorisms à la Mr. Miyagi or Yoda. Flash’s most devoted acolyte, Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), is a near-superhero who can scale walls and fences Parkour-style and always keeps his Pumas immaculate. The hero, Ezekiel (Justice Smith), is an orphaned poet and pianist who grieves for his parents through music and verse. He’s madly in love with Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), the brilliant singer he accompanies when she sings at her father’s church; but Mylene’s in torment because her minister father (Giancarlo Esposito) doesn’t want her to chase her dream of being a disco queen, because disco is the devil’s music, do you hear? (It’s the same dilemma faced by the hero of The Jazz Singer, which came out in 1927.)
Ezekiel has three close friends, played by Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., and Jaden Smith, but they’re mainly background players (although Smith’s character, an intense young scholar and tagger named “Dizzee” Kipling, gets more fleshed-out midway through). The heart of the show is the relationship between Shaolin, who wants to be a DJ like his idol Flash, and Ezekiel, who realizes that the beats drifting off of Flash’s turntable can make his poetry accessible to a wide audience. Shaolin and Ezekiel keep doing that TV character thing where they’ll have a big screaming fight and make us think their friendship is irreparably damaged, then apologize to each other a half-episode later and get back to the important business of working out song ideas while stoned. You could call this more evidence of the show’s lackadaisical plotting, or you could chalk it up to the fact that Shaolin and Ezekiel are teenage boys, and this is how teenage boys tend to relate to each other.
Ezekiel gets so wrapped up in his quest to become artistically self-actualized that sometimes he seems to forget that he’s crazy in love with Mylene. To be fair, though, Mylene is so consumed by her own issues with her music and her father that she seems to forget him sometimes, too; she’s also being pursued — more in an artistic than sexual way — by Jackie Moreno (Kevin Corrigan), a burned-out cokehead record producer who’s so inspired by her talent that he actually starts writing good music again. Meanwhile, Mylene’s uncle, Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits), acts as political godfather to everyone in the South Bronx, connecting the crime and music and political aspects of the story as he tries to develop low-income homes on a patch of burned-out rubble.
Much of the show’s aesthetic DNA comes not from history texts or vintage documentaries (although the latter are sampled in montages) but from Summer of Sam (Spike Lee’s love letter to the same New York summer, 1977) and two early Walter Hill movies, The Warriors and Streets of Fire. The CGI re-creations of ‘70s New York are nearly as artificial as the images of 1920s New York in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby or 1890s Paris in his musical fantasy Moulin Rouge. Sometimes the bombed-out Bronx landscapes and graffiti-splattered trains look two-dimensional, like something out of a pop-up book. The pilot is a near-disaster because it tries to cram in everything that Baz Luhrmann wants to say about this subject and these characters without ever convincing us that he has any real ideas about any of it. At least the critically despised Vinyl had a thesis about the empire of rock and roll being built on an aesthetic graveyard of African-American blues musicians; this one has nothing except, “Look at these clothes, aren’t they awesome? Listen to that music, isn’t it awesome?” Though Luhrmann’s sincerity and optimism can be beguiling at times, he’s more often exhausting, a shallow virtuoso — like a house-flipper or a decorator who sees everything in terms of what he can do with it, which means the tone of a lot of his work (including the pilot) can be hampered by traces of condescension.
That the show still has a beating heart feels like a small miracle once you know about the show’s production problems. It cost $120 million, a Game of Thrones budget, and chewed through two showrunners and multiple writers before limping halfway through its first season and taking a breather. This Friday sees the release of six episodes, ending with a “mid-season finale” that doesn’t feel like one. What’s onscreen is as often an inadvertent record of behind-the-scenes turmoil as a self-contained story. The difference between the pilot, which Luhrmann directed, and the five subsequent episodes, which were directed by other people, is night-and-day drastic. The first episode is 90-plus minutes of adrenaline-jacked exposition, with Luhrmann slinging the camera around and cutting every shot into visual confetti, often while seeming unaware that he’s approaching key settings, such as a drug den ruled by an African-American female crime lord, with a rich white tourist’s eye for the “exotic.” But once the show slows down and starts letting scenes play out, instead of montage-ing every scene and slathering it with music, The Get Down becomes something akin to an extended symphony of a city, connecting characters in different neighborhoods via music and imagery and showing us their emotional interiors instead of loudly telling us what those interiors contain.
After the first episode, less of the show feels like Luhrmann. That’s not a bad thing, because it means that at a certain point, the show passed from the hands of somebody who wanted to imprint himself upon it, and into the hands of people who genuinely want it to be its own thing, no matter how hard it is to make that transformation happen. In general, the more The Get Down trusts in its actors to carry the meaning of a moment or scene, the better it is. Jimmy Smits and Kevin Corrigan’s supporting performances should be the tuning fork for this music-driven series as it moves forward; their characters seem like caricatures at first, but reveal new layers with every scene, and the other actors seem inspired by their generosity and skill. The third episode, set during the New York blackout of 1977, is great TV, and its last ten minutes are masterful. The show starts taking structural cues from its characters here and in episode four, often concentrating on two main story lines and cutting between them like Grandmaster Flash working two turntables, always choosing exactly the right spot to jump from one record to another. The show feels lumpy and unfocused right up to the end of its sixth episode — the “mid-season break” — but there’s enough promise that I’ll be back in 2017 to see whether The Get Down can find the right groove and stay in it.