Netflix’s binge-friendly format of dropping full seasons at once means that episodes — and pilots in particular — tend to matter less. A premiere is still important, but it’s not as important as one that has to establish everything broadly and quickly, because you have to wait another week to see more. There’s often a caveat to broadcast shows that if you can just get past the pilot, things get better from there. For possibly the first time, this caveat must be majorly applied to Netflix and The Get Down’s opening 90 minutes, which rivals HBO’s Vinyl in its manic and disjointed excess.
The Get Down comes from the master of excess, Baz Luhrmann, along with playwright co-creator Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Luhrmann directs the premiere. Though some of one’s appreciation of The Get Down may be tied into a more general question of liking Luhrmann’s style, even his fans will have to admit it’s a mess. A sprawling tale of the rise of hip hop that came out of the desperate days of 1970s New York, the series follows a huge cast as they fight to find their place in what feels like a world of rubble on fire.
This is a powerful story, and one that is deeply culturally significant, but The Get Down doesn’t start to come together and tell it particular well for several episodes. Using fun flourishes like magic realism to feed into the era’s kung fu obsession, and allowing the visuals to match the bombastic sounds of punk and disco doesn’t work until you’ve established an actual story. And more than that, until you’ve established a real connection to the characters. As a result, the first episode is nothing but sound and fury.
The dissipates as it continues, and just becomes a very expensive (the series was notoriously over budget) niche interest piece that can be quirky and charming—when it slows down to make any sense. This gritty, dark tale about the South Bronx also feels initially watered down into a kind of musical theater-inspired after-school special. Archival footage meshes poorly with the look and feel of the narrative, and even when serious topics are broached, the cartoonish basis of the series’ world strips it of any real meaning.
Still, the cast does everything they can with the material, with stars Shameik Moore (“Shaolin Fantastic”), Justice Smith (“Ezekiel”), and Herizen F. Guardiola (“Mylene”) as absolute standouts (especially regarding their friendships and relationships). The three also represent fledgling music of the era as it finds its footing—MC, DJ, and disco respectively—and one thing The Get Down succeeds in is finding a way to celebrate all of these different musical genres without disparaging any of them, or those who love the scene.
The few (very few) veteran actors in the series—including Jimmy Smits as Mylene’s politically connected uncle, and Giancarlo Esposito as her strict, religious father—are given clearly delineated characters, but The Get Down’s young supporting cast (Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., Jaden Smith, Stefanee Martin) struggle to distinguish themselves in what is largely a muddled mess. Plots and character traits are dropped quickly, and replaced with dance numbers and sudden side-stories that add to the overall atmosphere, but also to the confusion about what The Get Down is really trying to say.
As far as cameos from real musical acts of the time, Grandmaster Flash (played by Mamoudou Athie) appears as an important role model to the group of teenagers, but behind the scenes he’s also an executive producer of the show, which frames his story from a particular perspective. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but given how expansive The Get Down is striving to be, it also calls into question the series’ attempts to tell a story from all sides.
The Get Down is ambitious, and sometimes it’s even fun. But it takes a whirling dervish approach to its visuals and its storytelling in a way that doesn’t do justice to its cast or to the fire behind this important moment in music history. Buried within it are great moments just about teenagers in the summertime, finding beauty in the rubble, and creating music that finally speaks to who they are. But these are small kernels of truth in an otherwise messy spectacle.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Get Down’s first 6 episodes premiere August 12th on Netflix; a further 6 episodes will premiere at a later date.