With all the hype around shows like “13 Reasons Why” and “Stranger Things,” there’s another Netflix original show you may have overlooked. “The Get Down,” whose second season (technically the second part of the first season) was released on Netflix earlier this month, tells the story of the early days of hip hop through the eyes of a talented young wordsmith from the Bronx named Ezekiel “Books” Figuero (Zeke for short, played by Justice Smith). Zeke is joined by an extensive cast of major and minor characters including his girlfriend, Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola), his best friends, Ra-Ra, Dizzee, and Boo Kipling (Skylan Brooks, Jaden Smith, and Tremaine Brown Jr., respectively), and his MC Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore).
The premise of the show is that Zeke, the Kipling brothers, and Shaolin form a hip hop crew called the Get Down Brothers, which quickly gains popularity thanks to Zeke’s lyrical abilities and Shaolin’s DJing skills. Meanwhile, Mylene pursues her own career as a disco star while struggling to meet the expectations of her strict Pentecostal preacher father. The show plays as an extended flashback, with many episodes bookended by scenes of adult Zeke rapping to a packed stadium about his adolescence. While adult Zeke is played by Daveed Diggs (of “Hamilton”), the rapping is voiced-over by Nas, which makes for some interesting cognitive dissonance for fans of either rapper.
“The Get Down” is the brainchild of Baz Luhrmann, a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen the outlandishness of “Moulin Rouge” or “The Great Gatsby.” Though Luhrmann was apparently less involved in the production of the second season, the show still has all the hallmarks of his famous theatricality: rapid cuts, flashy colors, and extravagant musical numbers. It also has all his signature weaknesses: an overstuffed plot, scenery-chewing villains, narrative inconsistencies, and an obvious prioritization of style over substance. Few directors are as universally polarizing as Luhrmann, and one’s response to his earlier work will probably predict their response to “The Get Down.” If you find Luhrmann’s movies self-indulgent and lacking in emotional depth, you might want to skip this show. If, as I do, you think “Romeo + Juliet” is the greatest Shakespearean adaptation of all time, “The Get Down” is likely to be up your alley.
To be clear, “The Get Down” has plenty of flaws that require overlooking in order to fully enjoy it. It’s an ambitious show that has clearly bitten off more than it can chew. It attempts to combine stories about the birth of hip hop, the death of disco, romance, crime, and politics, into one whirlwind of disparate plotlines that threatens to leave viewers exhausted and confused. A few plot lines, such as Mylene’s transformation into a disco star, the Get Down Brothers’ gradual mastery of hip hop and DJing, are genuinely enthralling, while others, such as Mayor Ed Koch’s political machinations and a possible affair between Mylene’s mother and uncle, are underdeveloped and not particularly interesting. To be fair, the narrative tightens up a little during the second season, concentrating more closely on crime, music, and the relationship between the two. In the end, however, the show’s most central critiques of being overstuffed with plot and lacking focus are still serious issues.
Aside from narrative problems, “The Get Down” is also plagued by minor historical inaccuracies, which might not be noticeable to most, but are likely to bother both serious disco or early hip hop fans, or, in other words, the show’s target demographics. Songs that didn’t exist in 1977 (Donna Summers’ “Bad Girls,” Eastside Connection’s “Frisco Disco”) keep appearing on the soundtrack. DJ Kool Herc’s development of the break beat is ignored in favor of Grandmaster Flash’s invention of the quick mix technique, even though the former was arguably the biggest turning point in the birth of hip hop. The decision to use Nas as the voice of adult Zeke is jarring, as his distinctively 90’s style of rapping (not to mention his home borough of Queens) make him an odd choice to represent someone who learned to rap in the 70’s in the Bronx.
Yet despite its problems, I can’t get enough of “The Get Down.” What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in sheer spectacle. The show is visually stunning, making good use of its absurdly high budget which swelled to $16 million per episode—6 million more than the sixth season of Game of Thrones—to create an immersive portrayal of 1970’s New York in all its cocaine-dusted, glitzy glory. The most visually stunning parts of the show by far are its grand-scaled musical numbers, none of which have failed to send shivers down my spine. When Zeke and the Get Down Brothers perform, they crackle with so much energy that it doesn’t really matter whether or not the events leading up to the performance made narrative sense.
These days, when most of the work of creating a song’s beat can be done on a computer, it’s easy to forget the sheer level of technical skill required of old school DJs. The earliest hip hop was only performed live and relied on a technique called break-beat DJing, which involved isolating the percussive break—what the show refers to as “the get down”—of a song on two separate turntables and then seamlessly switching between the two to create an endless beat. Eventually, musicians started creating percussion-heavy house and breakbeat music that was designed to be mixed, but in the beginning, DJs used mainstream funk and disco songs with shorter—and thus less forgiving—percussive breaks. The timing and precision needed to constantly loop these songs, both on turntables and in real time, is frankly mind-boggling, and it’s one of the things “The Get Down” gets completely right. The effort that goes into a hip-hop performance is a major part of the show, as is the respect that its characters have for the original pioneers of hip hop—people like Grandmaster Flash (who worked closely with the show’s creators during its development), DJ Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa. Despite its faults, there’s never any doubt that the creators of “The Get Down” love and revere hip hop, and in the end, that’s arguably all that really matters.