There's good news and bad news if you watched the trailers for Netflix's The Get Down and couldn't figure out what the series is about other than taking us back to the Bronx in 1977.
Bad news first. You'll feel the same way, pretty much, after the first episode, which, like the trailers, is stuffed with dreamy visuals, fun costumes and great music but leaves you wondering, What exactly is going on here?
"It is dizzying," said creator and director Baz Luhrmann in an interview with TVguide.com. He had a lot to set up in the first episode, he said, pretty much acknowledging that the first iteration is all over the place.
There's a cast so massive that it's difficult to discern who to stay invested in. The story feels hard to pin down, scenes move really quickly, there's archival footage of the actual city spliced in that feels disjointed and at 90 minutes, you may begin to wonder what we're working up to or if this is a just a decadent, indulgent mistake.
But, the good news: The Get Down does begin to pay off — around the third installment, to be specific — at which point it becomes clear this thing may very well be spectacular. Luhrmann is the first to admit that production went a bit off the rails but, as he and every actor in it said, every kink was in service of the story. Baz made sure things were perfect, no matter how long it took. "That's the sign of a great director," said Jimmy Smits, who plays a community organizer.
Said Luhrmann — who has worked with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z in the past — "I tried many times to find the right producer, so I could be an "uncle" to the process." That didn't work, so he lead the charge. And partially becuase the story focuses on unsung black and Latino youth coming of age at the birth of hip-hop culture, he was even more obsessive than usual in getting the details exactly right to ensure The Get Down wasn't half-assed cultural appropriation. "It's not my story," he said. "I'm a curator of it. How did so much creativity come from New York in that moment in that time? I just started trying to answer the question. As I got into the story I learned..there was so little. The city had forgotten these kids, who were creating with whatever they had. In the modern era, [hip-hop] has been the singular most pure creative force that not only transformed a borough or a city, but if I go to Paris or Berlin it's outside on the walls. It's pervaded the world in the modern era."
The first episode centers on Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith), a smart and gifted poet who struggles in school largely due to the failures of his parents. He's got a major crush on Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), who aspires to sing disco, which is forbidden by her religious father Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito). Zeke winds up in a crew of boys falling in love with an emerging music style, and they're obsessed with local legend Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) who is talented at petty crime, graffiti and literally soaring across rooftops. Amid the decay of their borough, they're expressing their creativity — as well as dodging gangs and bad guys like the gangster Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)-- and earning the tutelage of DJ phenom Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie). And that's really just some of what you'll encounter in the first episode. By the third though, all these characters and stories and motivations begin to congeal, promising some payoff for the investment of attention.
The Get Down requires a suspension of disbelief - this is not a world in which keeping it real is of great import. That's actually the wonderful thing about this show: although many early reviews knock The Get Down for not being gritty and "urban,"that overlooks The Get Down's central mission.
With this series, hip-hop's beautiful, messy and complicated origin is vaulted past urban or even intellectual art to get pushed into the realm of historical fantasy fiction that's frankly long overdue. Sex, drugs and rock & roll, after all, is such a repetitive cliché that it — or shows about it anyway, i.e. Vinyl, Roadies — have wrung it for all the juice it can seemingly yield. We need The Get Down not only because it lovingly romanticizes the beauty that came from ashes but, goodness, isn't the landscape starting to feel stale?
It's helpful if you come to The Get Down with some baseline understanding of how hip-hop culture came to be. You're at an advantage if you know that the era depicted is one in which poor minorities were faring even worse in a New York City already on the decline and frustrated with mayor Ed Koch. Knowing that the scrawl on the subway cars is a deeply layered an rich culture in itself - one that gave birth to cultural icons including Keith Harring, for example - helps you see the cars as moving museums rather than just set pieces. And some familiarity with Grandmaster Flash and his contributions to the music allows you to go on the magical flight of fancy that depicts him as some sort of messianic hip-hop Zeus. Obviously, The Get Down is a heavily stylized piece; not going into it expecting to learn Hip-Hop 101 (already documented in hundreds of films, books, journals, albums, college courses and so on) greatly helps in taking style choices at face value and relishing in them.
"It's factual and it's mythological," Grandmaster Flash told TVguide.com at the Television Critics Association previews in Beverly Hills last week. "Baz's main intention was not to make a documentary. He wanted to make an incredibly vivid visual presentation of something from his point of view." Even Flash was initially taken aback when he saw himself depicted. "When I see my character I'm like, 'Whoa that's really...special.' I'm a really humble person, and the way he has me depicted does have me like 'Whoa.'" But, he said, this is important to see.
This doesn't mean, though that everything works. Some stories don't add up; one character you're pretty sure you saw die comes back a few scenes later like nothing happened. In another, we see kids at a party utterly mystified by this crazy new thing that's clearly breakdancing; even though they've been present for the birth of rapping, scratching and graffiti, somehow this thing being born at the same time eluded them entirely. Still, the sum is greater than the parts and in this first batch of episodes — the second half of which are coming sometime in 2017 — does create anticipation for the rest. Yes, it's a bit imperfect, but then, so is its source material.
"What [the early hip-hop artists] were doing was taking one thing, adding it to another and making a third," Luhrmann said. "I'm a collage artist. Hip-hop showed me the way and I think I didn't even realize it."
The Get Down begins streaming its first six episodes Friday August 12 on Netflix.