There's a scene towards the end of the first episode of The Get Down where a character played by Shameik Moore (who many remember as the star of Dope) is describing "the get down part," that section of a classic record where all of the "violins and singing and shit" in the track drop out, and you're left with the funkiest of breaks. It's what the very fabric of the sound of hip-hop was built on, the sound bed that emcees (or, as they're referred to in The Get Down, "wordsmiths") wait for so they can get busy. True DJs in the era in which the show takes place would collect a litany of records, all in the hopes of getting a pristine assortment of "get downs."
Sadly, the 92-minute first episode of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann's expensive af Netflix series loosely about hip-hop's birth in the Bronx in the late-1970s, feels like a lot more of "violins and singing and shit" and less of "the get down part."
The story, as it's laid out in that long-winded episode, focuses primarily on Ezekiel (Justice Smith), a teen who has a gift for poetry but doesn't want to look like a chump in front of his squad or his classmates. He's in love with Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), who has a knack for singing and a strict, religious father, who doesn't want her singing (that devil music, at least). They're growing up in the Bronx, which is coming down from a disco high and starting to put together the building blocks of hip-hop culture, and both looking to music as a tool to help them out of the crumbling borough. For Zeke, that means hooking up with Moore's Shaolin Fantastic, a graffiti artist turned DJ, and riding the wave of this movement that would become hip-hop. The problem? For a show that has been marketed as a tale about the birth of hip-hop, it's much more invested in the love story of Zeke and Mylene, which just so happens to be occurring in the midst of this explosion of new hip-hop energy. The end result is a show drenched in Baz Luhrmann's dizzying visuals that is less about what was promised in interviews and promos: a devoted dive into the origins of hip-hop.
Part of that might be my personal aloofness towards Baz's career, and musicals in general. No matter how many times you ask me, I'm not trying to see Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge. Call it a personal preference, but if the question is "should Baz Luhrmann be making THE Netflix series about the birth of hip-hop," I err on the side of "no."
That's not to say that I didn't love things about the premiere episode. The actual "Get Down" party that happens towards the end of this long, exhaustive journey reminded me of some of the better grimey nights I've had attending real hip-hop events, from the hot intensity of a hungry crowd to the DJ laying down breakbeat upon breakbeat for what can feel like hours of bliss. There's also something inspiring about an insane dash through the back alleys and burning buildings of the late 1970s Bronx, all for one piece of vinyl, that spoke to me. The show also looks gorgeous—Netflix really got their $120 million worth when it comes to the sets, the vintage style, and the overall look of the series. I just can't get too engrossed in it.
One of the main problems is that The Get Down doesn't feel like it knows where it's going. For a show that's been built up as a glorious look at the beginning of hip-hop, it's hard to keep your eyes open when it spends so much time delving into Ezekiel pining for Mylene, or setting up the different criminal elements in the city that end up having an awesome looking yet out of place shootout, which features the death of the coked-up disco DJ that had been hyped up for the first 60-plus minutes of the premiere. And then there's an entire subplot with Jimmy Smits trying to beautify the city that feels like it's from some other show entirely. And don't even get me started on the confusing decision to mix real, archival footage from that era's war on graffiti. Compared to the splendid look of the show, dipping back into those clips from IRL New York City news reports looks and feels cheap.
If anything, I wish The Get Down would approach the story of the birth of hip-hop like how VH1's The Breaks depicted the calm before the '90s hip-hop explosion into the mainstream. It's a blessing that casting news from the TV movie that's becoming a TV series broke this week; with The Breaks, all of the right buttons were hit. You can wrap a love story, a coming of age tale, and a gritty depiction of hard street life into a story that's focused on the world of hip-hop without boisterous drug dealers, extended dance competition scenes, and groan-inducing dialogue. It might not be the Baz Luhrmann way, but it's closer to what some might expect from a project like this, and is certainly not Moulin Rouge set to breakbeats.
Look, as an admitted old who has been a fan of hip-hop since elementary school, it might be my duty to watch The Get Down. I've been a fan of Nelson George's work, and appreciate that Grandmaster Flash and countless others were on hand to help guide the history behind the project. But does that history need to be wrapped up in some technicolor hip-hop-meets-Grease acid trip? I doubt it. That said, I hope by the series end (which we won't even see until some time in 2017), some skilled editor will take the reins and guide The Get Down onto the proper grooves so that we can finally get the birth of hip-hop story for this generation that we've so desperately needed.