Quantcast
'The Get Down' Tells the Story Behind the Birth of Hip-Hop

Baz Luhrmann's new series about the beginning of hip-hop in the Bronx is unfocused at times, but ultimately true-to-life.

Baz Luhrmann's new Netflix series The Get Down is a fantastical bildungsroman set against the backdrop of the Bronx in the late 1970s. The show offers a fictionalized chronicle of the origins of hip-hop. Narrated and executive produced by Nas (visually portrayed by Daveed Diggs), himself a son of Queens and one of the genre's greats, the series follows a group of teens as they navigate survival amid gang violence, arson, and fraud by landlords, as well as the pangs of first love. Hip hop, as an art form and a cultural movement, becomes both a remedy and an escape for the boys and their community at large. Grandmaster Flash, one of the early pioneers depicted in the series, served as an associate producer.

Throughout The Get Down, Luhrmann uses music to evoke nostalgia and in his words, " to advance the story." In an interview he gave at the Tribeca Film Festival, he explains that music acts as text in his work. With the money spent on licensing—the series cost a whopping $120 million—he clearly throws his weight behind his artistic choices. The soundtrack, which blends old school and new school, seamlessly integrates the likes of pop greats Donna Summer and Janelle Monáe.

Luhrmann, who is known for grand cinematic spectacle (think Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), has ambitiously set out to capture the timbre and spirit of the time that gave birth to the genre of hip-hop. This is a huge ask, and as a consequence, the series initially feels incredibly unfocused. The two-hour-long pilot episode is top heavy with unnecessary exposition. By the third episode, however, Luhrmann, who fired two showrunners before taking up the mantle himself, manages to pull the plot together. Still, there remain questionable aesthetic choices—excessive rhyming dialogue à la Spike Lee's Chiraq, for one—which tend to distract from the wonderful performances of Shameik Moore, Justice Smith, and Jaden Smith. Moore, who first came to prominence as the lead in Dope, commands the screen as a vintage Puma-wearing, kung fu-obsessed graffiti master known as Shaolin Fantastic.

Moore, who is Jamaican, fittingly plays the young disciple of Grandmaster Flash, running the streets when he needs a quick buck and answering to a ruthless female boss named Fat Annie, whose gaze is always trained on him. Moore's character, Shaolin, brings the rest of the kids into this increasingly menacing world, and since they don't have much else going for them and are tired of dodging violence in their neighborhood, they follow. Justice Smith plays Zeke, the lead, a black Nuyorican teen with a considerable talent for the written word. Naturally, he channels his poetic chops into rhymes for Shaolin's turntable beats. Jaden Smith plays a dreamy young graffiti artist who tags his work under the name Rumi, a nod to the 13th century mystic and poet. They are joined by Ra Ra (Skylan Brooks) and Boo Boo (Tremaine Brown, Jr.), both young, enterprising, and black. The lack of whiteness in the series, save for its white Australian director, is notable and historically accurate. Many believe that hip-hop originated in the Bronx's Sedgwick Avenue projects, which were majority black and Latino. The borough's overall white population had been declining since the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway (created by the city planner Robert Moses) in the 50s, leading to a period of what historians term "white flight."

Shaolin brings the rest of the kids into the world of hip-hop parties in the projects, where they learn valuable lessons in camaraderie, trust, and resilience. Due to a series of unfortunate accidents, the group discovers the body of a young gang member in the trunk of a car Shaolin is supposed to dispose of for Fat Annie's son. This incident of violence binds the five kids—who call themselves the "Fantastic Four Plus One"—together through trauma. From there, they are inseparable.

The series takes clear cues from 1979's cult classic The Warriors, arguably the first filmic representation of New York City's thriving borough-based gang culture. But here the gangsters are relegated to subplots, as are the various junkies and the politicians (Frank Wood as mayor Ed Koch squares off with Francisco "Papa Fuerte" Cruz, a Bronx city councilman played by Jimmy Smits). All are merely obstacles for our young heroes to overcome. In that sense, despite references to Robert Moses's racist planning legacy, the series sanitizes the import of the social ills of the time.

For example, Zeke's primary love interest, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), is ensnared in a collaboration with a drug-addicted music exec named Jackie (Kevin Corrigan), which leads to an overdose. Mylene's best friend knows precisely how to treat him: by shocking his system. When Mylene asks her friend how she knew to do this, she answers cryptically that her mother used to do it for her father. The same friend is shown to be in a physically abusive relationship but also just for a moment. The series would have done better to contextualize these issues beyond mere hints, but again, Luhrmann makes an attempt to tackle an entire social landscape and perhaps tries to do too much.

More interesting are the emotional conflicts Papa Fuerte has with his hyper-religious, hypocritical brother, father to Mylene. Mylene's dream is to make it as a disco singer, which she eventually does despite her father's extreme resistance, gaining traction through the city's queer ballroom scene. There's an incredible moment where Jaden Smith's character discovers this self-contained underground culture and marvels, mouth agape, at the glittery, drug-fueled dreamscape he has happened upon. Smith's wonder is palpable and the psychedelic, awe-filled nature of his character almost makes it seem like the part was written just for him.

The first season of The Get Down doesn't roll to a stop, but escalates with such momentum that you are left wanting more. The kids are just beginning to shine: Zeke lands an internship with the city thanks to careful cultivation by a teacher, the maternal Ms. Green (Yolonda Ross) who sees his potential and pushes him to overcome his circumstances. Ross, who lived in New York through the 1980s and considers herself a fan of the early years of hip-hop, recognized something familiar in the showiness of the series. "[The city] was more artistic, more vibrant than it is now," she said to me. Indeed, where the series falls flat in plot, it shines aesthetically—the costume and set design create a gorgeous spectacle. "Baz's interpretation of this time period, the pageantry of it, it's true of New York then."

Follow Muna Mire on Twitter.

The Get Down is now streaming on Netflix.