Once “The Get Down” finds its wings, it soars. 8.5/10
Saturday Night Fever wasn’t released until December of 1977, meaning that during the events of Netflix’s latest new series the disco genre was still predominantly limited to the Black, Latino and gay communities in a few urban centers. This looming explosion in world-wide popularity provides an ironic backdrop to the story that’s told in the first half of what will be a 11 episode arc to be completed in 2017. Because even as the style is about to hit its peak and make John Travolta, the Bee Gees and Studio 54 household names, a less polished, more genuine musical art form is gestating in the South Bronx that will outlast its predecessor by 35 years and counting.
The heart of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” – he produced the entire series and directed the first episode – is the story of two teenagers with dreams of escaping New York’s roughest borough. Through their eyes, we experience both the natural symbiosis and increasing friction between the nightlife of gaudy discotheques and the nascent underground subculture of hip hop.
Mylene Cruz (newcomer Herizen Guardiola) wants to be the next club diva, joining the likes of Donna Summer and the fictional Misty Holloway on the other side of the river, and leaving what seems to be the perpetually burning ruins of her neighborhood behind. Standing in the way is her pastor father (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) who is willing to let his daughter use her angelic voice in the service of the Lord, but believes that dance music in 1977 is an instrument of the devil.
Ezekiel Figueroa (Justice Smith) has a natural talent for poetry, but, as a beautiful sequence early in the first episode explains, has been left orphaned by drug violence and lives with his aunt and handyman boyfriend, Leon. He would be ready to let the systemic forces arrayed against him keep him down, if not for his love for Mylene and the hope that they can make a life outside of the Bronx.
These two desires, Mylene’s for fame and Ezekiel’s for her love, kick off the plot of the first episode where, to gain her favor, Ezekiel attempts to find a rare remix of her favorite record and by doing so, crosses path with a legendary graffiti artist and aspiring DJ, the wonderfully named Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore).
As these teenagers attempt to prove the truth behind the title of the first episode “Where there is Ruin, there is Hope for a Treasure”, in the background larger forces are affecting theirs and the city’s future. Predominant among them is Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, (Jimmy Smits) who is working behind the scenes to improve both the lives of his community and his own financial situation by delivering votes in the hotly contested New York mayoral primary between Abe Beame and Ed Koch.
The first episode is right out of the Australian director’s playbook. Bright colors, outlandish fantasy-like sequences and exotic narrative choices bring back some of the joy of watching his work for the first time, but can at times, seem a little off-putting considering how otherworldly the Bronx of this period already looked. Clocking in at over an hour and a half it also takes too long to get to the titular world of The Get Down and may put off some viewers who prefer their flash of the Grandmaster variety, rather than that of Moulin Rouge.
The series settles down after it’s pilot, almost to a fault, as the next few episodes only rarely display the quirkiness we saw non-stop in the first 90 minutes. Still, the scenes are always shot beautifully, the story is compelling and the main characters and supporting cast so likable that it’s worth getting through the exposition to embark on this journey with them.
When The Get Down really begins to soar is, appropriately enough, at the beginning of its fifth episode “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly”. Picking up from a cliffhanger, this and the sixth episode combine all the magic of the pilot with the narrative focus of the middle section. Guardiola and Figueroa provide about as magical a 5 minutes of television as you’ll ever see, one wordsmithing his way out of a jam, and the other singing to the heavens. This short sequence seems to inspire the cast and writers to bring these first six episodes to a more than satisfying conclusion.
The Get Down was an incredibly expensive proposition for Netflix, coming in at more than 10 million dollars per episode, and in the early going, there was a risk of it falling more in line with Marco Polo than Game of Thrones. But this story, just like the upstart musical genre whose birth it is depicting, is showing sparks of brilliance that give great hope for the future.
We will be reviewing each episode of “The Get Down” on our podcast starting on Tuesday.