The Get Down
After an eight-month wait, The Get Down returns to Netflix with a fresh batch of five episodes to close out its first season. Act II continues the adventures of the Get Down Brothers and Mylene Cruz and the Soul Madonnas, two musical groups who were just beginning to taste the sweet freedoms of success as the show went on hiatus. Mirroring the end of Saturday Night Fever, a film this show incorrectly pegs as being released in 1978, our heroes venture from the neighborhood devils they know to the equally wild and untamed streets of Manhattan. It’s been a few years since President Ford told New York City to “drop dead,” but the Big Apple stubbornly refuses to be put out of its misery. The Get Down remains a show about survivors in a hostile environment and the creative, often dangerous ways that environment gets navigated.
A year has passed since the events of the first half of the season, and we’re briefly brought up to speed by the younger and older versions of the show’s main character, Ezekiel Figuero (Daveed Diggs). As the future Ezekiel resumes his role as the rapping Rod Serling who introduces each episode, his younger self works on writing his college-entry essay. At the behest of his internship boss, the delightfully named Mr. Herbert Gunns (Michel Gill), Ezekiel is trying out for Gunns’s alma mater, Yale. This might elicit a giggle, but if George W. Bush can get into Yale, why can’t Ezekiel “Books” Figuero? I’m sure he’d get better grades — and he has discernible talent.
“To grow up in the ghetto is to wrestle daily with dichotomy and duality,” begins Books’s essay, highlighting not only the theme of “Unfold Your Own Myth,” but the encompassing theme of the show itself. Every character has a side hustle, a necessary feature in The Get Down’s universe. Part of that side hustle involves one’s own public representation: “What am I showing? To whom am I showing it? Must I change what I am showing based on location or the company I am keeping at the time? What will happen if I slip up and show the wrong thing?” To quote the white man who once lied about walking through ’70s-era Bedford-Stuyvesant alone and unafraid, “we all have a face that we hide away forever, and we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.” For the first time in the series, some of its characters are starting to interrogate and grapple with this concept.
“What do they see when my co-workers look at me?” Books asks Yale in his voiceover. He is sitting in a conference room on a high floor of the Twin Towers, a room so seamlessly recreated, right down to the view, that I got goosebumps. After being yelled at by a co-worker who mistakenly thinks Books hasn’t done his job, Books chats with Claudia, the boss’s daughter who, as we saw in “Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice,” is an instigator who “likes the shock value.” We know what this co-worker sees in Books: a way to piss off Daddy. It’s too bad Jordan Peele’s Get Out won’t exist for another 39 years. Books could use the warning.
Claudia flirts with Books, but her lunch invitation is declined in favor of a tense date with Books’s main squeeze, Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola). The tension stems from Mylene’s appearance on Platinum Boogie, the Soul Train/Soap Factory clone where Mylene debuted her latest extremely catchy religious disco song. Platinum Boogie is hosted by “Cool Calvin Moody, here to shake your booty.” In his best Don Cornelius voice, Moody asks Mylene if she is seeing anyone. Offstage, her PR people tell her to lie about her relationship with Books. Hesitantly, Mylene says she is single. Books, who had been watching the show with his Get Down Brothers crew, is humiliated. “That was mucho frío cold!” one guy tells him.
“That was for publicity!” Mylene tells him. Fans always want their fantasy objects to be available, so she put on the single-girl act for them. In fact, Mylene is juggling lots of public representations on the Platinum Boogie set. Her suave A&R man Shane wants her to flirt with Cool Calvin Moody. The record label wants her to pimp the label and disco music, which runs counter to what her pastor father Ramon (Do the Right Thing’s Buggin Out, Giancarlo Esposito) wants her to do. Reverend Buggin’ Out wants her to give a shout-out his Pentecostal church and pretend that she’s not using the Devil’s music to deliver the Lord’s message. Despite calling the church “God’s Nightclub,” a brilliant marketing slogan that would shame Don Draper, Mylene slips up, revealing her true self, the one who wants to be as big a disco star as her idol, Misty Holloway.
“I knew it!” says record exec Eric Bogosian. “She’s not religious at all! She’s gonna be our next Donna Summer!”
Meanwhile, Cadillac, Fat Annie’s disco-dancing hit man of a son, buys into Mylene’s little white lie about her relationship status. He brags of his impending conquest of Mylene to a roller-disco DJ at Les Inferno. Though Mylene turned the song down, Cadillac manages to record “Disco Biscuit Sex Selection Remix,” an 18-minute jam that would definitely be on Bill Cosby’s record player. Cadillac strong-arms the DJ into spinning this quaalude interlude at his roller rink three times a night in order to help Cadillac’s new record label break into the mainstream. Cadillac has delusions of grandeur that he’ll be able to coax Mylene from her huge record label to his rinky-dink one.
Cadillac has more realistic aspirations for his day-to-day job, running Fat Annie’s drug business. He converts an abandoned warehouse space into a banging club where he can easily move her product. The club will have as its headliners the Get Down Brothers, with Books, Ra-Ra, Boo-Boo, and Dizzee on the mics and DJ Shaolin Fantastic on the wheels of steel. The Get Down Brothers start to turn a profit as a result, though their payment is nowhere near the amount Shaolin seems to be getting courtesy of the fat envelopes coming from Annie. This causes a rift within the crew, but before it does, Shaolin Fantastic proves he may be the greatest DJ around by slipping a snippet of the Joel Grey/Liza Minnelli song “Money” from Cabaret into a Get Down Brothers’ rap performance.
Unfortunately, Shaolin Fantastic is also, to quote Books’s Yale essay, “a fucking fantastic drug dealer. He’s Super Fly bred with a five-star general.” (This show has kickass marketing slogans, I tell ya!) We discover it’s a bigger issue than we expected, as Books reveals his hatred of drug dealers. His father was one, and it cost both his parents their lives, sending Books to live with the aunt and uncle who steered him toward his “other life” working with Mylene’s activist uncle Papa Fuerte Cruz (Jimmy Smits) and Mr. Gunns. Again, the notion of duality gets raised in this episode. Books loves Shaolin — he’s the DJ to his wordsmith and the possible purveyor of the success he craves as a rapper — but he can’t reconcile Shaolin’s side hustle. It hits too close to home. “Shaolin loves the streets,” Books says, “and they don’t let go.” They also don’t respect some ghetto kid’s dream of going to Yale, so Books keeps this part of his life hidden from his DJ and his crew.
The only other Get Down Brother with a major plotline is Jaden Smith’s Dizzee, the Afro-clad, wonderfully weird graffiti artist whose love of a good tag nearly gets him arrested. The cops do get his partner, Thor, however, and Thor’s jail time is made bearable by the plot-driven cartoons Dizzee draws on his behalf. These animated sections are a nice addition, but I wonder if they should have been more anime-like to keep with the mythos of the show.
“Unfold Your Own Myth” ends with a well-edited sequence of potential and actual romantic entanglements. Kudos to Jonathan Redmond and Vanessa Procopio for resisting the urge to mimic the show’s co-creator Baz Luhrmann’s style, which has so far only been destructive whenever it’s reared its ugly head. While Papa Fuerte and Mylene’s mother (Zabryna Guevara) succumb passionately to their forbidden, years-long flirtation, Books almost winds up in the Sunken Place with Claudia. He resists her advances when he remembers he promised to attend Mylene’s Tiger Beat shoot. When he misses it, Mylene feels miserable and winds up in the backseat of a car with dangerously smooth A&R man Shane, who offers her weed, but nothing else — for now.