The Get Down and the Sanctuary of Hip-Hop
Baz Luhrmann’s grandiose new Netflix show hums with cinematic magic but has a real interest in the conditions rap rose from.
After a deadly shooting at a T.I. concert in New York City earlier this year, the NYPD commissioner William Bratton gave a radio interview blaming the bloodshed on “the crazy world of these so-called rap artists who are basically thugs” who “basically celebrate violence they did all their lives, and unfortunately that violence oftentimes manifests itself during their performances.”
This is old, familiar allegation against the genre, one that not only blows by questions of correlation and causation and confirmation bias but also refuses to separate out an art form’s content, purpose, and the social conditions within which it has been made to flourish. For decades, rap has been portrayed as especially dangerous because of the music itself—even more so than rock and punk and jazz, though they all, at one point or another, were accused of having a corrupting and deadly influence.
So it was even for disco, as Baz Luhrmann’s bighearted and halfway successful new Netflix series The Get Down reminds its viewers early in its run. Set mostly in ’70s Bronx, it centers on the high-school student Ezekiel (Justice Smith), who, we can assume, will one day be the rap superstar performing at the 1996 Madison Square Garden concert shown at the start of each episode (with Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs lip-syncing to lyrics from executive producer Nas). But hip-hop doesn’t exist for Zeke in 1977, and it barely exists for anyone else either. Instead, there’s disco, which his neighborhood crush, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), wants to conquer as the next Donna Summer. Unfortunately, Mylene’s dad (Giancarlo Esposito) is a strict minister who literally considers it the devil’s music. “Thy voice shall only be lifted to the glory of god,” are his first words on-screen.
From everything The Get Down then shows us—spoilers for the premiere ahead, though this isn’t a show you really watch for plot—he’s not necessarily wrong to worry about his daughter’s disco fever. The club she sneaks out to is called “Les Inferno,” for starters. Her efforts there to hand a demo tape to an influential DJ trigger a flamboyant crime enforcer named Cadillac to make sexual advances on her. And the Get Down’s first transcendently giddy musical sequence, a hustle-and-point duel to C.J. & Co.’s “Devil’s Gun,” meets its disturbing end when a group of masked men shoot up the club.
But once the violence erupts, the groove fades and distorts and Luhrmann’s soundtrack cuts to opera more befitting a Godfather showdown: one of many tells that in this show’s colorful take on cultural history, bloodshed and strife exist not in cahoots with the music of a marginalized and economically bereft minority but in tension with it. Standing near rubble-strewn vacant lots and burning buildings in the Bronx, Les Inferno and the gambling club above it are a playground for brown and black folks (one of whom, the delightfully imperious mob boss Fat Anne, runs the place). A bouncer outside tells Zeke to go around the corner when it appears he’s about to enter a fistfight. And the awful massacre is perpetrated by a gang called the Savage Warlords, white youths dressed like the cast of The Warriors. The disco club, it’s clear, is shaped by the presence of violence and desperation. But it’s also meant to be a refuge.
The same could be said for all of the creative exploits that the utterly charming kids of The Get Down get up to, including graffiti writing, DJing, breakdancing, and emceeing, the canonical four pillars of hip hop. By the end of the hour-and-a-half premiere, Zeke and his buddies have attended the titular Get Down, a party where Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) shows off his radical new technique of using turntables to create a continual rhythm from parts of other peoples’ songs. Earlier, Zeke rebufffed his English teacher’s encouragements to use his talent for poetry in order to escape from the life that the Bronx would otherwise impose on a young, poor, parentless male like him. It’s only at the the Get Down, where the braininess that gets made fun of in the classroom can become a social weapon and route to status, that he takes his first step to rap stardom.
Which is not to say that discovering hip-hop magically whisks him away from the perilous dynamics of his environment—an environment clearly shaped by government neglect, as shown by an interwoven plotline about Mylene’s uncle, a tough but community-minded political boss played by Jimmy Smits. During the chaos-causing NYC blackout of ’77, Zeke considers joining the looting so as to help move his dream along, but a buddy counsels him to fall back. “Why, because we’re special?” Zeke asks. “Because we’re above all of this? How are we above all of this?”
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Famous for Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, Australia, and 2013’s Great Gatsby, Lurhman hasn’t tamped down his more-is-more instincts for The Get Down. The camera twirls like a disco ball, glinting out storylines about artistic ambition, teenage love, urban politics, crime, and the record business. It’s clear we’re in the realm of the mythic when the graffiti artist and aspiring DJ named Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) arrives in montages of parkour and kung-fu sound effects. Sometimes there’s a sensation of entering a Shakespeare adaptation when Ezekiel breaks into rhyming dialogue with other characters. Often, the actors will wear facial expressions of Grease-like exaggeration. But we’re meant to feel grounded in historical reality, too, as telegraphed by Luhrmann’s liberal use of grainy documentary footage of ’70s New York City and Ed Koch’s tough-on-crime mayoral campaign.
Netflix and Sony Pictures Television spent a scandalous $120 million on the show, and it’s paid off in the sense that sparkle and flash are the most successful components of The Get Down’s entertainment factor. Which is a nice way of saying that the plotting of the three episodes I’ve seen would not hold anyone’s attention on it’s own. You like the characters but rarely feel any great suspense as contrived obstacles crop up to to complicate but not derail their journeys. This could prove fatal for the show’s chances to do what a Netflix hit needs to do, compel viewers to not hit the “X” button between episodes.
But for many people, The Get Down may work like a song whose lyrics are mind-numbing but whose beat can’t be denied. Luhrmann’s aesthetic flights of fancy and the show’s fertile premise count for a lot. So does the extremely appealing cast, which includes recognizable faces like Jaden Smith, Esposito, and Smits but thrives most on its unknowns. Justice Smith as Ezekiel is particularly magnetic—he’s a scrawny kid who talks like Rocky Balboa, and the moments when his low-and-rumbly shtick becomes ridiculous, like when he grunts out a declaration of love to Mylene, are all the more endearing. You want to spend time in this film universe, even if you don’t care all that much what’s happening on a scene-to-scene basis.
An undertaking like this, with the white Aussie Hollywood power player Luhrmann stylizing a history and culture far from his own, is an obvious minefield, and no doubt there are ways in which he has not navigated it fully. But the contributions of the journalist Nelson George in the writer’s room and Grandmaster Flash and Nas as producers may have helped prevent there from being too many cringeworthy moments of insensitivity (though viewers may cringe for other reasons during Luhrmann’s hammier scenes).
On the press tour before the show’s premiere, Grandmaster Flash has helped give insight into the reality that The Get Down so eagerly bedazzles. Talking to The Guardian about one of his Bronx block parties, the kind of Zeke and friends attend, he recalled, “The police officers loved us. You could see them parked across the street. They don’t have to chase no thugs because the thugs are in the park with us jamming. So we made their job easy.” And when walking in hostile gang territory back then, “It was like, ‘Oh that’s Grandmaster Flash, let him go. … They respected what I did.” So it’s really not just TV-show mythologizing when The Get Down presents music as a way to try and survive danger—exactly the opposite of how some people, even today, think of one of our era’s most vibrant art forms.