The smooth flowing dulcet tones of a rapper anointed with a gift opens the curtains, and every hip hop lover is taken back to the day where Illmatic changed their lives forever. That emcee was Nas and his prowess as a wordsmith physically transported you to time and place like no other. To be the voice of the street, to understand the struggles and the pain of the families trying to survive each day. His verses line each episode of The Get Down and provide the most nuanced and insightful narrative to the Bronx in the seventies, which unfortunately is not seen as refined or as coherent anywhere else.
The Get Down is a love story but not of man and woman, but of music and its culture. And in that we see romantic imagery of a time long passed reminisced through rose tinted spectacles. To see such incredible graffiti on the train cars harks back to so many hip hop songs and the turntables are just a thing of beauty. The opening episode features a nightclub paying homage to Soul Train with the most sensational outfits and outrageous dance moves. But none of that is as amazing as the man spinning on the wheels of steel: Grandmaster Flash. Complete with matching Adidas tracksuit and flat cap, Flash loops those breaks never missing a beat. Mamoudou Athie not only looks like him but speaks with the gravitas that only the father of hip hop deserves. His dialogue uses music as a metaphor for life and is singularly an ode to a culture born from oppression. There is so much devotion to the art form that it brings a tear to the eye because never has hip hop looked like this before.
It is an intoxicating show with bright lights, even if they are in the form of buildings on fire, glorious soul music, even if it is the soundtrack to murder, and dazzling outfits, even if they are adorned by drug pushing star of the show. It all washes away into the distance as superficial glamour and panache takes centre stage. No other character conveys this better than the Grammy winning, superstar creating Jackie Moreno, played by the versatile Kevin Corrigan. The record producer who controlled the music industry, now a pseudo celebrity with multiple drug addictions and dwindling talent. But he always looked fantastic. It is always about appearance. That theme echoes throughout every storyline in The Get Down, including Pastor Cruz who rebels against disco but really his past, Mayor Koch who sees graffiti prosecutions as a way to clean up the streets and Papa Fuerte who gives back to the community whilst being immaculately dressed. Beneath it all is a deeply sad and desperate society trying their best to survive poverty, crime, blackouts and an intolerable heatwave.
The landscape is set through a mixture of archived camera footage, filtered lens of staged sets, and flashbacks of the previous episodes. There are lovely moments of cinematography with snappy cuts and rapid movements, especially on the dancefloors. It does begin to feel forced when there are repetitive overlaps of story involving the three main characters, in tonally completely different situations. There may be drama but the bright colour filters and catchy tunes draw your attention away from the tension of the predicaments. It would also be beneficial if you were naturally drawn to any of the characters, outside of Zeke. It is very hard to feel anything for Shaolin Fantastic because he is, at his best a bad friend with a short temper, despite the fact he wears the Kung Fu belt buckle, red puma trainers and jumps around performing dramatic kicks. Herizen Guardiola is seen as the breakout star of the show as Mylene Cruz, because her voice is a thing of beauty. However, her acting is not tested outside of being a starry eye hopeful who has a strop when her opportunities begin to crumble. Meanwhile Ezekiel, played by Justice Smith, is the real heart of the story because it is through him that everything resonates. It is he who declares his love only to be shot down, it is he who takes his poetry to the block party, it is he who sacrifices music for politics and it is he who becomes the voice of a nation. Justice is just wonderfully believable in pain and resoluteness but also gifted on the mic and delivering his rhymes. It would seem that every other character in the show would fail without him. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, as is the entire series.
The Get Down is a very hopeful show through all the hideous violence, drug abuse and dereliction. The tone and exaggerative nature of Baz Luhrmann’s direction treats these events as almost trivial measures, even when it is trying it’s damnedest to show depth. The final episode has Jaden Smith’s character, Dizzee frequent a gay club to watch people voguing, which was a movement borne from the exile of homosexuals and transvestites. It seems more important to immerse yourself in illicit substances, free your inhibitions and kiss someone of the same sex than truly appreciate the rejection of societal norms. Every aspect of the show is glamourised to the point where the point is missed. Using real news footage depicting riots is an interesting strategy except there are no consequences or repercussions to the people in the show. The central characters are too busy trying to record a record, learn to keep time or write rhymes to spend time in the world around them. The supporting cast are better reflections of the Bronx, especially Stefanée Martin and Shyrley Rodriguez who are bright bubbly personalities painfully aware of their bleak futures.
The Get Down lacks any real tension or sense of failure; even when Mylene’s recording studio opportunity shatters into pieces there is hope almost immediately. Zeke produces a heartfelt speech on a political soapbox whilst still being able to make the all-important deejay battle. Even Shaolin Fantastic is able to simultaneously serve his gangster boss lady as well as battle on the turntables, another failed moment of trepidation. Scenes depicting drug peddling interspersed with wonderful choreography and emceeing leaves you wondering whether you should be happy or sad. The answer is never far away because as soon as the upbeat melody and salubrious direction hits, all those worries fade away. The Get Down has only love and nostalgia at its heart, but at its surface is an indulgent ignorance of the real tribulations of the Bronx in the seventies.