The Get Down focuses on 1970s New York City – broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped — dying. Consigned to rubble, a rag-tag crew of South Bronx teenagers are nothings and nobodies with no one to shelter them – except each other, armed only with verbal games, improvised dance steps, some magic markers and spray cans. From Bronx tenements, to the SoHo art scene; from CBGBs to Studio 54 and even the glass towers of the just-built World Trade Center, The Get Down is a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip-hop, punk and disco — told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world…forever.
Though promotional material had caught my eye, I might not have gotten to The Get Down without the recommendation of a friend. It is a Netflix Original series created by Baz Luhrmann, the first part of season one released on Netflix on August 12, 2016. Described to me simply as the origins of hip-hop mythologized, the series more than exceeded the implications of this idea. While well-grounded in the setting of the South Bronx in 1977, the series has a prominent musical flair, accented with disco and Kung Fu movie styles of the time. It walks a tightrope between reality and larger-than-life eccentricity near flawlessly, depicting many characters and circumstances as mystical or miraculous without getting carried away enough to break the audience’s captivation.
While the IMDB summary above covers a lot of what the show is like, I don’t think it’s as apt as it could be when it comes to the cast. Four of the five in the main group — Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith), Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling (Jaden Smith), Ra-Ra Kipling (Skylan Brooks), and Boo-Boo Kipling (T. J. Brown Jr.) — are a tight-knit group from the get-go. Three of them, in fact, are brothers and live with their parents who own a barbershop. Zeke, our protagonist, lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, having lost his parents at a young age. A bit of a far cry from “rag-tag” with “no one to shelter them,” but I digress.
The group dynamics between the four feel very natural, demonstrating closeness just in how they behave together without the need of much drama occurring to do so. I’m especially impressed by how age-appropriate the casting was, with Justice Smith being one of the oldest actors of the group at 21 years. Despite their ages they all perform exceptionally well, making the experience of watching sometimes surreal considering how visibly young they are. It’s funny to realize how rarely high school age characters are played by high school age actors, especially in series geared toward adults.
After a whirlwind evening of events where Zeke tries to win the affection of his long-time friend, unrequited love, and aspiring singer Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola), his path crosses with apprentice DJ and graffiti artist Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) who notices Zeke’s talent with poetry and words and takes him and his friends under his wing. Shao is under the mentorship of Grandmaster Flash (played by Mamoudou Athie), real-life figure and one of the pioneers of hip-hop DJing, cutting, and mixing. With his guidance they plan to carve out their own place in the DJing world.
What I love about the series is how fixated it is on its characters’ ambition towards their art. On one hand we have Zeke and his crew (initially The Fantastic Four + One) pursuing hip-hop DJing, and on the other Mylene trying to be a disco star. In the beginning I foresaw crime plotlines, romantic entanglements, and other engagements taking a lot of prominence in a way that might muddy the story to me. Fortunately, these factors are more appropriately used as conflicts that interfere with or compromise the groups’ focus on their music, rather than distracting by running as parallel plotlines. Thoughmostly separate the two music pursuits tie together in ways that payoff nicely as well.
I’ve especially gained an appreciation for the artistry involved with DJing from this series, learning the more precise mechanics of what they’re doing during live performances. When not involved in the creative process the characters are also navigating the scene, trying to build up their resources and make connections, which is where a good deal of the drama stems from. The musical moments integrate well with the story too, being instances of rehearsal or performance rather than numbers like in more generic musicals. The pivotal moments of performance are greatly built up, the execution providing very satisfying payoff. It all contrasts so well with the real human drama that takes place, uplifting the viewer along with the characters.
An aesthetic touch I particularly enjoy is that every episode title appears as graffiti on a subway train. While delinquency and crime are appropriately depicted for the period and setting, the series balances this by showcasing stigmatized art forms such as graffiti and the music as more than just delinquent pastimes, but legitimate art forms with passionate contributors and admirers. This is expressed frequently through Dizzee, who has a deeply artistic mind that he expresses through graffiti — a particular bugbear of mayoral candidate Ed Koch who has a recurring role.
The Get Down is an excellent series, perhaps the only downside for me being the first season is split in two. That being said, I don’t want to delve any deeper into specifics than the following for fear of giving too much away. It’s only six episodes long so far, but contains a well put-together story arc that concludes nicely while leaving plenty of loose ends and ground to cover moving forward. They manage to concisely manage a lot of different elements in this span of episodes, especially in the realm of exploitative power dynamics, as well as touching upon drug addiction, the music industry, politics, the Gay community, education, and overbearing parentage.
As someone who has no particularly deep emotional connection to any genre of music — and I consider myself strange for this — I was still absolutely captivated by the history, story, characters, and performances. I highly recommend this series to anybody.