Combined efforts from Baz Luhrmann, Nas, Grandmaster Flash, and more have brought a small but powerful piece of old-school hip hop to Netflix in a neat little package called ‘The Get Down’. The plot explores landscapes of hip hop, disco, graffiti, and politics in the late 1970’s Bronx, with a clear figurehead in each parallel plot and Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero at the crux of it all. Despite attempts at fairness between categories, the hip hop segment is the clear priority of the production. Graffiti artist and amateur DJ Shaolin Fantastic, a Grandmaster Flash protégé takes on Zeke, an aspiring MC and his friends, the three Kipling brothers as his crew. Together, the “Fantastic Four Plus One” pursue a reputation worthy of the Grandmaster. We assume they found it, since the scene occasionally jumps forward to a present day rap narration by Nas, voicing an adult Ezekiel (portrayed by another actor) in a recurring slick, glamorous concert scene. The device sounds alluring in theory but falls flat just short of lame, especially in conjunction with archival news footage from the era. The glossy black of the stage removes Ezekiel from any sense of place, which the rest of the show thrives on, and the story telling is so effective in real time rap battles and musical numbers that the retrospective narration never really stands up to it. At best it’s an assurance that Zeke makes it in the end, at worst it’s a cop out.
The peripheral plot lines revolve around Mylene Cruz, Zeke’s love interest who battles between feelings for him and a fast-approaching career as a disco sensation; her uncle “Papa Fuerte”, the intimidating community boss who introduces Zeke to “white man” politics through his attempts to elevate the Bronx and its minorities with affordable housing; and Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling, the most delicate and artistic Kipling brother garnering respect as graffiti artist Rumi. Jaden Smith as Dizzee in a glorious afro wig, delivers an incredibly sweet and nuanced performance and elevates the almost-unrelated and under-explored graffiti plot line to an equal part with great emotional depth. Similarly, while there have been some arguments that the ever-present but never fully integrated gang and drug drama was an unnecessary addition, it was a part of the landscape too important to ignore, and the relative innocence that most of the characters maintained despite the corruption adds to the bittersweet hopefulness that really defines the show.
Mylene and her crew provide a great foil to the Fantastic Four Plus One, and a little bit of positive energy and comic relief while maintaining strong, focused personalities.
‘The Get Down’ arrived to Netflix audiences only twenty-eight days after the instant hit ‘Stranger Things’, another period piece starring a group of kids and a great soundtrack. Like Shaolin’s amateur karate moves, ‘The Get Down’ seems falter lamely in commercially minded reviews against unavoidable (and, I think, ultimately unfair) comparisons to ‘Stranger Things’. I watched both in a matter of a few days, and only a few days apart. I finished ‘The Get Down’ in less than 24 hours (a personal record) and I’m not writing about ‘Stranger Things’. So they must have gotten something right. The two are nowhere close to comparable in terms of genre and even overall purpose. While ‘Stranger Things’ was a great opportunity to abuse the “Next Episode” button and scream futile advice at the screen, compared to ‘The Get Down’ it’s nearly devoid of emotional significance, and the 80’s nostalgia comes out to no more than just that – nostalgia. ‘The Get Down’ carries historical significance that unfortunately just isn’t marketable enough for the frenzy caused by ‘Stranger Things’, but it’s no less valuable (too bad it cost $120M to make). Next up: DOPE, the 2015 Sundance film about three high school geeks in a punk band and obsessed with 90’s hip hop, struggling in a dangerous neighborhood.
The six long episodes make up more of an extended movie plot than a TV season, but they are bundled up as “Part 1”. As much as I loved it, I would be more than happy with the last episode as an end to the series. But the surface of Zeke’s implied career has only been scratched, so a second season sounds promising.