Written by Josh Sarnecky
The Get Down Series Premiere Plot Summary:
Ezekiel (Justice Smith) attempts to woo Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) as she plans to convince a local DJ to help her get signed by a record label. Along the way, Ezekiel and his friends encounter a street gang terrorizing the Bronx and meet a mysterious graffiti artist known as Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), who introduces them to a musical revolution.
Regardless of what you think of his movies, you have to admit that Baz Luhrmann has a distinct and electric style; for this director, over-the-top is simply par for the course. The danger that Luhrmann’s films occasionally run into is that they sacrifice substance for the sake of his patented style. Sections of his Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet suffered because of this tradeoff, but strong performances from his stars frequently made up for these drawbacks. Going into The Get Down, then, my greatest fear was that Luhrmann would get so intoxicated with the rich setting of the late 1970s that the sights and sounds of the era would overshadow the plot. However, The Get Down proves that Luhrmann is not only capable of balancing style and substance, he can also fuse them to create something memorable and exciting.
Luhrmann’s first foray into television smartly combines a coming-of-age story with the rise of hip-hop; the result is that the characters grow and evolve just as the genre does. Ezekiel’s personal and musical development perfectly captures these parallels and justifies the show’s (and Luhrmann’s) desire to exhibit the musical landscape of 1977. As an urban poet with a chip on his shoulder, Ezekiel is a window through which the audience can view the period, but the show ensures that he never feels like more of a plot device than a character.
Part of what makes Ezekiel such a compelling protagonist is that the premiere illustrates how young and naïve he is as a teen while also showing the raw talent and incredible drive he has. Unlike some coming-of-age stories in which external forces alone spur characters to mature, The Get Down establishes Ezekiel as both a producer and product of fate, making him more sympathetic and complex than your typical coming-of-age protagonist. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some of the other characters introduced in the premiere.
In particular, Mylene feels a tad underdeveloped due to her single-mindedness, and all of her actions and dialogue revolve around that single dream without adequately explaining why she is so determined to accomplish her goal. Hopefully future episodes will answer that question and provide Mylene with some much-needed depth besides the interesting family dynamics on display in the premiere. Until then, the show at least utilizes Mylene and the other minor characters to highlight the culture and music on display.
And just as one would expect from Luhrmann, the music and visuals of The Get Down are treated like characters of their own. By Luhrmann standards, the cinematography is somewhat subdued, but the show still revels in its use of period appropriate songs. The closest the premiere comes to Luhrmann’s patented over-the-top style are the dance numbers (particularly the one in Les Inferno) and the music/sound effects that accompany Shaolin’s kung fu antics. Thankfully, while these moments may seem a bit goofy, the show is self-aware enough to recognize the absurdity and prevent the extravagant scenes from getting out of control (unlike the Capulet family’s party in Romeo + Juliet and the “The Can-Can” in Moulin Rouge!). These instances are thus fun yet measured. The use of stock footage from the 1970s and newly filmed footage edited to appear forty years old, on the other hand, is a bit excessive at times but adequately establishes the setting with some flair. The sets, locations, and costuming further cement the era and provide viewers with a portal to the past. Much like Netflix’s summer hit, Stranger Things, this show captures its time period remarkably well.
Unfortunately, if there’s any area where Luhrmann’s problematic tendencies break through, it’s during the premiere’s quiet moments. Ezekiel’s conversation with his English teacher (Yolonda Ross) and a handful of similar scenes combine an unfortunate level of melodrama and clumsily produced exposition. As mentioned before, Luhrmann has been able to overcome these and other flaws in the past because of the strength of his actors’ performances, but even Justice Smith’s impressive showing can’t fully redeem these scenes. Meanwhile, a few of the show’s subplots feel too far removed from the main plot, and the premiere struggles to prove these threads are worth following. In particular, Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz’s (Jimmy Smits) political maneuvering is notably divorced from the central story and not incredibly captivating, especially when you consider that the show is a frame narrative told from Ezekiel’s perspective twenty years later. Luckily, Francisco’s family connections have the potential to make his dealings more relevant; the rest of the season, then, will hopefully clean up the storylines the premiere introduces.
Despite these issues, The Get Down is an extraordinarily fun journey. Luhrmann’s love of music shines throughout the premiere, and he approaches this look into the history of hip-hop with excitement and reverence. While not as much of a spectacle as some of his previous works, The Get Down nonetheless delves into the sights and sounds of the era and produces a world well worth exploring.
RATING: 8 OUT OF 10
The Get Down is streaming now on Netflix