The Get Down review: Baz Luhrmann’s hip hop tribute, Bollywood style

  • Rohan Naahar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 14, 2016 18:52 IST
The Get Down boys in action. Boo Boo, Raa Raa, Dizzie and Zeke, with DJ Shaolin Fantastic at the back. (Netflix)

I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side
Staying alive was no jive
Had secondhands, Moms bounced on old man
So then we moved to Shaolin land

- Wu-Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M.

The Get Down is more than just about the birth of hip hop. It’s more than just about the birth of disco. It’s about the birth of an entire culture. It is the story of that culture, having survived centuries in silence, finally finding a voice, armed only with a cheap microphone and a rad beat.

The Get Down is about music. It is about dance. It is about art. It comes from the unlikeliest of creative pairings: Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director of films like Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby and Nas, one of the greatest artists to ever rap a lyric. The symphony they create onscreen is like the perfect metaphor for this show. The Get Down can’t be kept down. It moves, it grooves. It taps its foot and sways its waist. When it asks you for a dance, you must not be shy.

It’s the new show from Netflix (their most expensive one yet), and now, after having seen possibly every original they’ve put out, I can be sure of one thing: Their output is unparalleled. No one is attracting talent like they are and neither is anyone producing art of such consistent quality.

It’s 1970s New York. The Bronx. It’s a time of great change. The scars of Vietnam are only just beginning to heal. It is the ‘Me’ decade. Bruce Lee is a dragon. Star Wars is playing in the neighbourhood. At the centre of this cultural awakening is a group of kids, battling broken families, adolescence, oppression and love in the most cinematic city in the whole world: New York.

Zeke and Mylene both have big dreams, but are oppressed by the world they’ve been born in.

It is the story of how music sets them free. And not just any music, but music they create. They don’t even realise it, but these kids have front row seats to witness the arrival of hip-hop and disco - and they’re the ones on stage. They’re the ones breaking the path.

Baz Luhrmann follows fellow movie directors like David Fincher (House of Cards), Cary Fukunaga and Justin Lin (True Detective), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) and somewhat begrudgingly, Woody Allen (the upcoming Crisis in Six Scenes) into exploring the creative freedoms TV has to offer. Coincidentally, The Get Down comes only a few months after Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl on HBO, a show that could quite possibly be set just up the street from The Get Down, a show that infamously crashed and burned as it chronicled the genesis of another, similarly rebellious genre: Punk rock.

Jaden Smith plays Jaden Smith. (Netflix)

Luhrmann directed the first, feature length episode of the show, and set the tone and style for what follows. But those of you who’re familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s style would agree with me when I say that it can be just as distracting as it is ecstatic. He brings that Luhrmann touch – Shakespearean dialogue, Kung Fu imagery, and even a Greek chorus in the form of a grown-up version of the central character Ezekiel as he recounts the story of his childhood. Grown-up Zeke opens every episode, and narrates it in the distinct voice of Nas.

But Baz’s episode – the one he directed - is easily the weakest of the bunch, overstuffed with characters, plot and edited with the same incoherency he brings to his films. Don’t get me wrong, despite his flamboyance, there is a certain likeability to Luhrmann’s movies - Gatsby is an astonishing picture – but it’s his good fortune that the others cleaned up his mess without too much fuss and thankfully rescued this show from what could have been a very jarring 6 episodes.

It’s the performances of the young cast, the hyperactive tone, the overexcited spirit and one of the best soundtracks of the year that bind this show as it threatens, episode after cluttered episode, to fall apart. And what a soundtrack it is. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there is barely a moment of silence in this show. One song blends into another as scenes jump from one plotline to the next.

Mylene wants to be a pop star, but her dad is a born again Christian who wouldn’t hear of it. (Netflix)

The Get Down is such a mixed bag. It’s difficult to not love, such is its spirit, but it is also very two-dimensional in its treatment of secondary characters (Giancarlo Esposito, who was pure genius in Breaking Bad as Gus Fring is given nothing to work with here). Still, it is an earnest show, ambitious, expensive, and just as rich in period detail as it is in Bollywood bravado.

Like the band of outcasts at its core, The Get Down isn’t bothered about strange looks as it bounds to the dance floor, wearing its bright red Pumas, ready to sing its song. It’s free. It’s loud. It’s angry. But it might want a partner. So when it asks you for a dance, don’t be shy, remember?

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The author tweets @NaaharRohan

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