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TV Review: ‘The Get Down’

Baz Luhrmann’s fanciful history of the Bronx in 1977 is both messy and wonderful

With:
Shameik Moore, Justice Smith, Herizen Guardiola, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito. With Jaden Smith.

The titular “get down,” as it is used in Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated and ridiculously expensive Netflix new drama, is the term for the sections of songs that are better than everything that surrounds them. It’s the distilled essence of greatness in the four-measure breakdown, or the 10-second outro — the nugget of brilliance around which the rest of the track is constructed. As Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) explains to Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith), finding the get down is about isolating it from the “wack” that surrounds it, which is sometimes the whole rest of the vinyl record.

The two aspiring musicians — the leaders of a ragtag group of teens named, eventually, “The Fantastic Four Plus One” — spend the second episode, and to a degree, the entire show, searching for the methodology of finding, isolating, and reproducing the get down. It’s both a technical process and a metaphorical one. This being 1977, the process of sampling off of vinyl playing on two turntables requires a degree of skill, dedication, and expensive equipment that is in short supply in the South Bronx. Grandmaster Flash, portrayed by Mamadou Athie (but also an actual producer on the show) exhorts Shao to dig into the sweet spot of the record to create a groove, to make the get down not just findable but re-findable.He shows the boys how to make that good thing last as long as possible, as it goes from the DJ’s turntables to a rapt, dancing audience.

Sure, it might be a hackneyed metaphor for life. Luhrmann is a master of gussied-up shlock, as his Red Curtain film trilogy attests. Fans of “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” and “Moulin Rouge!” will recognize familiar beats in “The Get Down,” from the cartoonish renderings of live-action drama to the lethally deployed pop music soundtrack. But in the Bronx of 1977, in neighborhoods so criminally neglected that they resemble a war zone, romance and beauty feel a lot less hackneyed in the hands of the abandoned kids of New York City. Zeke refuses to read his poetry because of the torrent of emotion that comes to him when he recounts his mother’s murder; when he tells Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) he loves her, tears spring to his eyes. Luhrmann’s bohemian sensibilities apply best to the young — and like Romeo and Juliet, the protagonists of “The Get Down” are very young (the ages aren’t made explicit, but most of them don’t appear to be older than 16). Music, as it so often does, presents an outlet and an escape.

“The Get Down” is a beautiful mess, a flawed show interspersed with moments of remarkable brilliance. It was unprecedentedly expensive and time-consuming for parent company Netflix; the result smacks of half-baked creative ambition run amok. There is a deliberately off-putting messiness to its execution, with cartoonishly blended tonal shifts from cheesy caricature to gritty tragedy. Stock footage from the ’70s is knitted together with elaborate production design. Some scenes are filmed like musical numbers on “Glee”; some, like action sequences from Bruce Lee’s kung fu films. It’s easy, and even understandable, to see in this approach nothing but a patchy, inconsistent flight of fancy — maudlin where it ought to be tough, sentimental where it ought to be smart, and undercutting the viewer’s expectations at every turn.

But “The Get Down,” in its multitudes and sprawl, resembles the Bronx itself; and in refracting the narrative through so many different lenses — Blaxploitation and black family sitcom, musical comedy and gritty prestige drama, campy action and teenage romance — it aims to portray the richness of this neglected borough. The show’s pastiche resolves into a gorgeous, fantastical tapestry of music legend and urban history, a reclamation of, and a love letter to, a marginalized community of a certain era, told through the unreliable tools of romance, intuition, and lived experiences.

All that can be alienating, but simultaneously, the show feels like vital, radical work. (Cheekily, a scene features Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” playing in the background, to remind the viewer of the stakes at hand.) Further, the subject matter and characters are extraordinary for their uniqueness on television — from a main cast constituted entirely of actors of color, to the intense focus on the culture and ambitions of some of the most disenfranchised populations in America. Shao and Zeke’s commitment to dig into the get down of their lives is an attempt to tune out the wack of their violent and unfair world, populated with death and poverty and no-exit despair. And the characters’ luck — as well as the genre of filmmaking — can turn on a dime to head in a totally different direction.

By the fifth episode, “The Get Down” finds a stunning facility with its own pastiche, knitting together multiple storylines in musical montages that are just the right amount of sincerely cheesy and just the right amount of arch camp. (Not even Ryan Murphy can sell a bunch of kids making music as well as bohemian schlock virtuoso Luhrmann, who managed to create plausibly tragic scenes set in a large elephant-shaped love nest.)

But “The Get Down” takes a few long and meandering hours to reach its own sweet spot. And the first episode, at a bloated 92 minutes, is a terrible introduction to the show. The indulgently titled “Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope For A Treasure” (the only episode directed by Baz Luhrmann himself this season) is too long, too confusing, and labored, rather than dreamlike; it feels and is workshopped to death. Luhrmann’s legacy, in his films, is in pivoting tonal shifts off of each other to create engaging spectacles out of what are, essentially, the most basic of romantic narratives. But the problem is, “The Get Down” has two such narratives — Zeke’s romance with his “butterscotch queen” Mylene, and his intense friendship with bandmate Shao. It’s an interesting but crowded dynamic; especially at first, and each relationship feels like it exists in a separate show.

On one hand, there’s wordsmith’s Zeke fledging friendship with record-spinner Shao, which eventually mushrooms into a vision for the Fantastic Four Plus One. Shao struggles with the seductive easy money of drugs and prostitution, and Shao and Zeke are joined in their creative quest by the Kipling brothers: brainiac Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), kid brother Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.), and loopy graffiti artist Dizzee (Jaden Smith, in both inspired casting and an inspired performance). On the other hand is Mylene’s dream to be a disco star — hindered by her preacher father (Giancarlo Esposito) and helped by her uncle (Jimmy Smits), a political ward boss.

It’s too much. Both spheres are compelling, as is the diametric opposition of Shao and Mylene, both jealous of Zeke’s attention to the other. But it’s tempting to want to lift a chisel to the show and crack it down the middle — to turn this overstuffed idea into one solid premise.

What saves the show — for those willing to invest in a three-to-four episode payoff — is Justice Smith’s preternaturally brilliant performance as Zeke, the one character that ties together Mylene, Shao, and the many other fractured pieces of this story. To emphasize the point, the character is mixed-race — half black like Shao, and half Puerto Rican like Mylene. And while both the friend and the girlfriend are hotheaded and impetuous, Zeke’s head is in the clouds, much to the frustration of the adults in his life.

“Books,” as Shao calls Zeke, is also the viewer’s emotional anchor — the sensitive window into 1977 that allows for greater connection to the story. Each episode begins with a framing device set in 1996, where Zeke’s older self, played by Daveed Diggs, raps the opening credits (and does a little plot recap of what came before). Zeke bridges Shao and Mylene, and the past and the present; by narrating, he also bridges the fourth wall, between the characters and the audience.

While the other actors portray characters who sometimes seem mannered or surface-level, Smith is consistently grounded in his character’s emotions, depicting both typical teenage-boy angst and the era- and location-specific yearning for something bigger and better. In one of the first rapped poems we hear from Zeke, he describes learning that he was “a n—er” for the first time, from his now-dead father. It’s heartbreaking.

Still, even the actor’s herculean efforts, can’t singlehandedly bring together such a wide-ranging show. It’s difficult to imagine any of it connecting without his performance, but there’s still plenty that doesn’t quite resonate anyway. Plus, as the six episodes debuting Aug. 12 represent only half the season, the midseason finale of “The Get Down” may feel like — wait for it — a letdown.

And yet. After falling in love with the Fantastic Four Plus One, those concerns don’t seem as essential. The stories of “The Get Down” are relatively simple, embellished with increasingly complex plot devices and grace notes. At its core is the age-old story of the hero’s journey — a boy (or in this case, a few boys) finding himself in a world populated with terror, darkness, and the occasional flickering light of home. It’s a different kind of fantasy tale. But the power it’s able to call upon and depict with reverence — the unifying, healing, endless possibility of music, man — feels magical, all the same.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: ‘The Get Down’

Drama: 6 episodes (5 reviewed): Netflix, Fri Aug. 12, midnight. 60 mins. (92 mins. premiere)

Crew: Executive producers, Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Nas, Grandmaster Flash, Stephen Adly Guirgis

Cast: Shameik Moore, Justice Smith, Herizen Guardiola, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito. With Jaden Smith.

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