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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.