Netflix has done it again with 'The Get Down,' one of their riskiest and most ambitious shows yet. Their big Baz Luhrman ('Chicago,' 'The Great Gatsby') musical bet paid off handsomely with one of the most purely entertaining series of the year. An operatic tone applied to a modern historical story during the birth of hip-hop (remember, it's fictional) works perfectly, blending different genres of music, settings and characters spanning from mythical to well-rounded and back again to purposefully broad. It is balancing a whole lot on its shoulders, but feeling overstuffed was often a good thing for me as I just wanted to spend more time in this world.
The show tackles cultural, sociopolitical, and religious themes that never feel like preaching and nicely underscore the entire story (if those elements weren't there it would be a weightless fantasy). An expected romantic story never gets in the way of anything else, mainly because of how strong the characters are, plus a lot of the classical stage show feeling would be lost without a forbidden romance. A great soundtrack of original music and well-known hits is organically integrated, bringing it all together to feel cohesive. The show's eager sense of discovery is infectious and kept me on the edge of my seat in anticipation.
'The Get Down' begins in the Bronx in 1977, following a group of teenagers just starting summer vacation. They have wild dreams and expectations for their time off, mostly aiming for the art/show-business world. Ezekiel (Justice Smith), a young black/Puerto Rican boy, is immediately shown as surpassing his peers and societal expectations for him. Not only is he intelligent in multiple ways (books, streets, emotions), but he is not at all the geek that those traits would normally make him in a show like this. Importantly for his character, Zeke is confident enough to go for what he wants and knows how & when to fight for it. This applies to every aspect in his life, but primarily comes to the surface in his musical & romantic pursuits.
The object of Zeke's affection is Marlene, a very talented young singer and daughter of a local preacher. She is also no-nonsense and confident, ensuring nothing will get in the way of her dreams for disco stardom. The third character, Shao (an upcoming DJ who needs a wordsmith to perform with him), is treated almost mystically (echoing Kung-fu & Blaxploitation films of the era), but even as he becomes more grounded the writers & directors keep a special aura around him . Shameik Moore (so good in 'Dope') pulls this tough balancing act off perfectly. The three of them form an essential love triangle driving the series, with Shao as the yin to Zeke's musical yang, while Marlene has Zeke's heart. Through the first season he tries to balance both with varying degrees of success.
The rest of the characters vary from realistic, fantastic and somewhere in between. Stand-outs include Giancarlo Esposito & Jimmy Smits (Marlene's father & uncle, respectively) who bring a little additional gravitas and power to their scenes, which focus on the larger themes at the heart of the show. Enough can't be said about the rest of the "fantastic 4 plus 1," which is what Zeke's friends initially call themselves and Shao. Surprisingly, the stand-out is Jaden Smith, who has a very tough role. He espouses artistically-inspired platitudes that make a marginal amount of sense at best and not all of them land (they're not meant to) but they all come off as sincere instead of him putting on an act for his friends. The rest of the cast is great, especially considering these are mostly young actors with little experience who are all asked to sing/rap as well. A few characters (primarily villains) are drawn very broadly but it all fits within the musical tradition.
This gets us to the heart of the show: music. The first episode culminates with the fantastic four discovering the Get Down, an underground party with music supplied by Grandmaster Flash himself. It's the first time these kid are exposed to this counter culture, so it changes them immediately. Zeke even goes into a complete stupor before proving his talents for words right on the spot. The rest of the series follows the group as they develop their skills amid the tumultuous environment that also inspires them. Their surroundings are getting more violent, politically charged and divided every single day, so this music (and the growing art of graffiti) is the first place they are able to express themselves in a way that doesn't feel forced.
How organically the show integrates music is pretty amazing. At any point a scene can break into a song but it never feels forced. The characters (and actors) are all clearly talented, just trying to be embraced by a small sliver of the world for what they truly are. Even the dialogue of certain characters falls into a Shakespearean rhythm that is almost another song. When the group is rehearsing for the first time, learning what unique talent each member brings, characters we have grown to know surprise everyone with a different spin on the same type of material, and it is clear this group has something special. Their unexpected talents are not telegraphed, but still feel perfect for each individual character. Disco is a big part of the series as well which makes everything feel whole. Given the time period, if everything was hip hop then it wouldn't be at all realistic.
Realism is another thing the series plays with often. That is not to say it's realistic, in fact a lot of it is far from it. I already mentioned the rhythm to some characters, but there are mythical elements too (not only for Shao). When a character seems larger than life they are treated as such in all ways, from quick, shadowed glimpses at their figure to booming voices that sound as if they are coming from the heavens. There are also shots of actual footage from the time mixed in with images of the different settings that are more painterly than photo-realistic.
This show may not be for everyone and I'll be interested to hear different reactions, but I was very surprised by how much I loved it. Even if it's half as much fun for you then it will be a nice end-of-summer treat.