Baz Luhrmann finds his groove with ‘The Get Down’
A throbbingly energetic, frequently operatic musical about love
What you deserve to watch:
A girl sings, a boy writes verses. They stand at the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s epic new Netflix production, The Get Down, tapping their feet and eager to participate as queen disco rules the roost while the newborn hip-hop rises to power. Set in The Bronx in 1977— there is mention of a sci-fi film about ‘Stars and Wars’—it is a throbbingly energetic, frequently operatic musical about love, creativity, introspection and power. Yet while a bouncy hip-hop West Side Story fits beautifully into Luhrmann’s oeuvre, this show digs deeper, feels more important. The Get Down is also a tale of racism, politics, violence, brotherhood and, most importantly, time-travel through turntables.
A DJ spins two records—explains the pansophical Grandmaster Flash—because while one record moves to what people on the floor love right now, the other record is cueing up the future, ready to dictate what they will groove to immediately after. The show, a wildly ambitious and expensive one, straddles several tonalities at once to try and keep this rhythm righteous, and while there are stretches during which it feels disastrously uneven, the jagged edges keep the storytelling sharp and the words unpredictable. ‘Cause Rumi rhymes with Bruce Lee.
The Get Down is the secret sauce, a concentrated shot-glassful that makes a song, or even an album, special. The greatness of a DJ lies in finding this essence and revelling in it—even if this means discarding the rest of the music. It is a staggeringly pure and ruthless approach, one the heroes of our show struggle to decode through the first six episodes—Part 1 of The Get Down streams on Netflix starting 12 August, with the rest of the season coming up in a few months—and an approach not everyone can come to grips with, particularly the vocalist heroine left wondering what happened to the singing parts.
It starts off simply, the girl singing while the boy with a majestic afro writes red-velvet rhymes, but a scarlet-shoe’d superhero changes things up. Shaolin Fantastic, leaping off rooftops—arms outstretched, like a ninja who likes ballet—is New York’s best graffiti artist, and he wants to quit the walls and give himself to the turntables. He worships at the altar of Grandmaster Flash, and needs a wordsmith, an MC who can freestyle while he lays down the beats. This is where the boy, Ezekiel, the writer and rapper-to-be, enters his story, and they put together a puny but passionate ensemble: The Fantastic Four Plus One.
Meanwhile, America is literally out of power. Political opportunists abound, the most significant being Francisco Cruz. Disgusted with the way even architectural scale models feature only white models of people, Cruz is a popular fixer with the dream to build a giant housing project for his “rainbow people.” A large part of the show’s vitality comes from its excellent and vividly coloured cast, black and hispanic and white. Ezekiel—the show’s leading man—is half-black, half-Puerto Rican and quotes Balzac.
He’s played by the wonderful young Justice Smith, who takes us along as he starts off shy and discovers his voice. Mylene, the girl he adores, is played by a highly effective Herizen Guardiola and the two conjure up crazy chemistry—the sort of mad young love Luhrmann does so perfectly, but that we haven’t seen since Romeo + Juliet (1996). Jimmy Smits is scene-stealingly good as Cruz, looking like a slimy Alan Alda, while Will Smith’s son Jaden is impressively nuanced in the part of Dizzee, a graffiti artist whose work—as Cruz rightfully states—belongs in the MoMA. Mamoudou Athie is cool as ice as Grandmaster Flash (while the real Grandmaster Flash is executive producer, watching over this spirited take on his legacy).
At the top of the heap stands Shameik Moore. His Shaolin Fantastic moves with electric elegance, a confused restlessness dictating his whimsical, lithe fluidity. It is his character that embodies the show’s absolute love for music. At one point, he interrupts frenzied backseat lovemaking to cue up a good song, ‘cause he “ain’t doing nothing without a beat.”
The Get Down has a predictable graph, and the 90-minute pilot episode (the only one directed by Luhrmann himself) is admittedly self-indulgent. Yet every musical number is rousing, the climax to the sixth-episode is spectacular, and as Rumi (and the graffiti-sprayed trains in the show) said, ‘Where there is ruin there is hope for a treasure.’ No current show has this infectious, intoxicating energy, and it’s a history lesson in music we could all use. This revolution is finally being televised.
What life’s too short to watch:
I dug the first three episodes of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s Vinyl, an HBO show set around rock music in the 1970s, available on Hotstar. The soundtrack is scorching, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano and Olivia Wilde act their pants off, and the cameos by music legends are well-cast and clever, but their novelty fades soon enough. Midway through the season, it is apparent that the hollow show is far too smitten by itself, and it’s downhill from there. Now that The Get Down has given the real thing, Vinyl, like a weak cover band, tastes almost unbearably synthetic.
What everyone’s watching:
Danny McBride and Walton Goggins are rivals in HBO’s new Sunday night comedy, Vice Principals, a story of horrible duellists competing scruplelessly for the job of Principal. McBride is as McBride always is, but Goggins—as the wide-eyed snake in the grass—is a treat, and there’s something charmingly old-school about watching these two profanely play the fool. In unison. (Hotstar, with new episodes available every Monday morning.)
Documentary to watch this week:
I’m halfway through the riveting Last Chance U. Despite not being a fan of what Americans insist on calling football, I found myself sucked into this. The six-part series follows the real-life adventures of the Lions, a football team from East Mississippi Community College, and builds up these young, unknown personalities in fascinating fashion. It’s as irresistible as a masterful long-form piece of sports journalism. Now on Netflix.
Streams of Stories is a weekly column on what watch to online.