When I first heard about The Get Down earlier this year I was really looking forward to it. The first images looked good and also the description of the show sounded interesting:
“The Get Down” is a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to a new art form. Set in New York in 1977, this music-driven drama series chronicles the rise of hip-hop and the last days of disco -_ told through the lives, music, art and dance of the South Bronx kids who would change the world forever.
As a fan of hip hop this was a setting that immediately was something I wanted to know more about. Through the years I’ve learned a lot about the music, how it developed and seeing that in the form of a show on Netflix seemed awesome. The show has been written and produced by Baz Luhrmann, who has done things like Romeo+Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby in the past. Someone who is very capable to show music in an exciting way which is visually pleasing. Besides that, New York in the seventies is a fascinating setting. Gangs were still very active (the documentary Rubble Kings is a good one to learn more about that). There was a lot of crime and buildings were set ablaze in order to collect insurance money. With a budget of 10 million per episode my expectations were high when I started watching this six part first season.
The show is set in the South Bronx and has a couple storylines. Zeke (Justice Smith) is a talented young writer who still has to find his voice and is in love with Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola). She has dreams of becoming a big disco artist, but her religious father (Giancarlo Esposito) tries to stop that. Some of Zeke’s friends are the three Kipling brother. One of them, graffiti artist Marcus (Jaden Smith), is constantly talking about the almost mythical Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). Shaolin Fantastic dreams of becoming a well-known DJ like Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) and is prepared to do anything for him in order to realize that. Zeke, Shaolin Fantastic and the Kipling brothers end up together and take their first steps into the world of hip hop. But local businessmen like the criminal Fat Annie (Lillias White), her son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and slick businessman Papa Fuerte (Jimmy Smits) have a lot of influence on what’s happening in the neighbourhood. Will these young men and women be able to realize their musical dreams?
Each episode starts out with a performance by an older Zeke (set in the present), voiced in this case by Nas. It sets the tone for each episode before the viewer is taken into the seventies. It’s immediately clear a lot of money was spent on this show, because both the sets and clothing look great and lots of archival footage is used to set the mood of New York at the time. So visually this is an attractive show, although the difference between the archival footage and the show’s own imagery is often way to big to convince you that they are set during the same time period. The wide shots of the Bronx never look convincing and too clean as you can almost spot the various elements which were used and put together in the computer.
But you don’t watch a show like this for the visuals alone, but mainly because of its story and what happens to the characters. Unfortunately a lot can be said about that as well. There isn’t enough room for depth or subtlety. The bad guys seem to have come form cartoons and don’t have any human traits. The central storylines about Zeke and Mylene are often way too predictable, so there aren’t many surprises. Unfortunately this is a show which chooses style over substance and that works for the moments there are musical performance or when Shaolin Fantastic tries scratching for the first time, but it doesn’t work when dramatic things happen. Grandmaster Flash is depicted as a master straight out of kung fu movies instead of a real person. And that is the biggest problem with The Get Down. For a show which wants to show you the beginnings of hip hop you come to expect a raw vibe. The reality however is pushed back so far though that the few dramatic moments don’t have any impact. There are moments of hip hop but it is never the true focus and that’s a shame. It makes The Get Down a slightly disappointing show which didn’t manage to come close to my expectations.