Netflix's The Get Down Bets Big On Hip-Hop's Origins
The Get Down Brothers (L-to-R: Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), Boo-Boo (Tremaine), DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), Zeke/Books (Justice Smith) & Dizzee (Jaden Smith).
The last scene plenty of us can remember in a pivotal drama about music came in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous. Technically its about Cameron Crowe’s start in the music business via working for Rolling Stone but still, it’s one of the few great rock films this century. In it, we see Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond, leader of the band Stillwater engage in a battle with William Miller (Patrick Fugit playing Crowe’s proxy). This battle? A fight over authenticity and a moment of revelation of all the skeletons within the band. It’s human as it is completely devastating because a) it forces a young boy to admit his love for a grown woman who may never have him; and b) reveals that even the next big band on the rise is as scarred and scared as any one of us. All of this happens during a turbulent plane ride set in 1973.
The irony of Stillwater’s rise in Almost Famous is how the rest of the world would come to realize that rock music, the good, classic American rock of The Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, would be regarded as passé by the 1980s. Right around the same time, DJ Kool Herc had begun his DJ parties in New York City. A lot about Herc has been made true, an icon who somehow becomes a secondary figure in plenty of pieces about the very genre he helped create. In Vinyl, HBO’s failed attempt at the transitions of rock music in the 1970s, he’s mentioned in passing just as a white, obtuse record executive accidentally stumbles upon hip-hop. Herc eventually sued HBO over likeness issues, and Vinyl was cancelled after only one tumultuous season.
Crowe himself has attempted to return to the music-drama genre he helped settle with Almost Famous in Showtime’s Roadies, but the show is bland, dry and built itself upon vices rather than the music itself. The big names attached to those two projects, including director Martin Scorcese, couldn’t necessarily hammer down an era where the surroundings and set pieces gave way to the music. It made me completely skeptical about The Get Down, Netflix’s foray into the genre. Arguably the streaming company’s most ambitious project yet, the first six episodes landed early last Friday (August 12).
There are no moments of whitesplaining hip-hop in The Get Down. No record executives deem themselves heroes for believing they are the modern-day Christopher Columbus in terms of new sounds and energy. Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby) obviously took heed to what had previously occurred with HBO and Showtime’s failed attempts at music drama. Instead the Australian filmmaker and his cast of directors emphasized not only style and his trademark elaborate flash, they allowed viewers to grow into these characters, even if the first episode is an over-the-top, bloated production. Multiple names and influencers within the genre such as Herc, Nas, Grandmaster Flash, journalist Nelson George, Kurtis Blow and more are attached to this, all in consulting roles.
If getting the basics of The Bronx in 1977 was key, Luhrmann and company wasted nothing by splicing in archival footage with their vibrant, colorful set. Fascinations with kung-fu, disco, rhinestone jackets, the growing evolution of hip-hop and Warriors-style turf warfare are paramount in The Get Down and at the center of it? A love story between two teenagers who are attempting to determine who they are and the powers they possess.
Beginning on the last day of school in 1977, The Get Down follows daydreamer Ezekiel “Zeke / Boots” Figuero (Justice Smith) and the issues he faces. Winning an essay contest for a candy bar is one thing. Reciting said essay in front of the class elicits teases and jeers and calls of being a “faggot." His confidence is shot in more ways than one. The girl he’s constantly pining for, Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) is caught up in being a disco starlet and won’t let love or her fanatically religious father Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito) stand in her way.
Zeke’s teacher knows the content of the poem and Zeke’s embarrassment for appearing smart in front of his peers. After class he powerfully recites it for her, a tale of losing both his parents to gun violence before storming out in frustration. Before long he’s scheming of a way to win Mylene’s heart, just as she’s plotting to get signed to a record label. Mylene believes Zeke has zero plans in life, a boy stuck to the clouds as opposed to the concrete. She is unaware of how far he’ll go to win her over. That includes figuring his way into the disco den Les Inferno, where a popular DJ may hold the key to Mylene’s success. Zeke ends up crossing paths with Sha 007, aka Shaolin Fantastic (Dope’s Shameik Moore), a tagger and street hustler known for his intricate graffiti, fast feet and bright red Pumas. He’s also linked with the area crime boss Fat Annie (Lillias White) and is a pupil of the Bronx’s best DJ, Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie). The two fight over a record Zeke planned to give to Mylene, and Zeke’s determination endears him to Shaolin, plus the fact he often speaks in rhyme.
From there, the initial story of two star-crossed lovers evolves into multiple stakes of morality, idealism and optimism. The side characters that are key figures in both Mylene and Zeke’s lives play a further role in making their Bronx home what it is. Mylene’s city-councilman uncle Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits) is a South Bronx staple with a good heart yet the resolve to do whatever it takes for black and brown people to not feel underneath their white counterparts. Over time, he too becomes a sympathetic figure, one who hasn’t been in love since the ‘60s and is far more progressive than his brother, Ramon.
Luhrmann has always been caught up in creating sweeping romantic epics and The Get Down is no different. Through the first six episodes, Mylene and Zeke interact with one another like best friends unsure of one another before becoming lovers. Zeke’s always found comfort in Mylene realizing his dreams; Mylene’s operated with the belief that Zeke with no serious aspirations attached to him wouldn’t go anywhere. But she begins noticing his dedication to rapping, though nobody is calling it that yet. How despite her feelings for Shaolin, Zeke is at least putting his book smarts to something. The trouble the two lovers face is one of ideals: how can they maintain their passion for one another while their respective careers blossom?
The Get Down operates in two worlds, the 1977 South Bronx where crime, gangs and blithe of New York City are as common as the sun; and 1996, where an adult Zeke retells the story onstage through the evocative and passionate raps of Nas himself. Viewers may feel a little off hearing Nas — Queensbridge’s Nas! — rap about growing up in the Bronx, but they’ll get over it. The musical stylings of The Get Down are less like Empire’s over-the-top lunacy (see making an entire song using prison surroundings) and are instead homogenous. Shaolin learns the fundamentals of catching a beat from Flash, and Mylene’s gospel leanings end up fusing with disco for a revelatory number that showcases her talent to the world.
What’s to be learned about The Get Down is that for all their historical accuracies, the inaccuracies loom just as large. Even if Shaolin is creating the first rap crew with Zeke and the Kipling Brothers (Jaden Smith, Tremaine Brown Jr., and Skylan Brooks), the raps feel less like 1977 and more like the early ‘80s. During one scene where the boys are gearing up for an important DJ battle, Brooks forgoes catching the beat as dictated by Zeke and Shaolin and instead does an impromptu double-time. Speed rapping didn’t exist in 1977 and if it came anywhere near Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, the most important rap single in history would never have sounded the way it does. The lack of certain Latin DJ crews and more will upset any hardcore hip-hop purist. The fact that older Zeke is a 30+ year old rap star in 1996 is mind-blowing enough. You know the most believable rap act of 1996 that even approached the age of 30? LL Cool J, who had by then resorted to rapping about sex in auspicious ways. 30-year-old rappers were burnt out in the mid '90s, almost the very height of the "rap is a young man's game" argument. The counter to this is realizing The Get Down is meant to entertain, not to be an outright documentary on the culture at large.
But as the first six episodes progress, the show does get right the simple aspects of storytelling. Navigating through the first episode's hour and a half is almost like watching a modern Spike Lee film. Literally everything is thrown at you in a form of sensory overload, and you're asked to figure out what path to follow. Things become more streamlined over the course of the next five hours as the vibrancies of the music, the parties and the people involved all become endearing. Zeke is no anti-hero, more the precocious young boy who stumbles into his gifts out of fear and embarrassment turned confidence. Mylene is strong, an antithesis of similar characters who felt the need to love first and chase their dreams second. The Kipling boys, from Jaden Smith on, find happiness in their eccentric, Bohemian home but grow into their own as well.
Netflix banked heavily on The Get Down. Its $120 million budget caused the streaming service to halve it’s first season into two parts. For authenticity purposes, the show is a hit. But in a storm of a summer where the Olympics and Netflix’s summer-smash paranormal show Stranger Things has owned social media and other word-of-mouth platforms, its unclear if the hype will sustain into 2017. The show adheres to not just telling one simple story but a rather complex one. With the burning buildings, crime and chaos of the ‘70s-era Bronx as a backdrop, it’s also a community that eventually fosters each of the characters into realizing themselves. The Get Down is as coming-of-age as it gets, a story that values independence over all.
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