The Get Down

Baz Luhrmann's ode to the birth of hip hop is theatrical, dazzling and wears its heart on its sleeve.

The Get Down

Scratch the surface of any Baz Lurhmann tale and you find a love story.

Whether set in the ballroom, Venice Beach or outback Australia, they are romances that wear their heart on their sleeve.

For his first foray into Television, Lurhmann partners with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis on The Get Down, a dizzying look into the rise of hip hop in The Bronx, 1977.

Like most Lurhmann sagas, buckle up for a frenetic ride bursting with passion, music and theatrics. In some ways this works like an urban fairytale with touchstones that would be cliches if they weren’t so welcome as clarity of what the characters wanted. Delivered with conviction, it avoids that pitfall.

The central character is Zeke (Justice Smith) an African-American (the cast is almost universally Black) teen with a knack for poetry and expression. But he lives with his Aunt and her partner, with the latter reminding him he will amount to little. Zeke also has his heart set on Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) a talented teen singer who wants to be the next Donna Summer -if only her God-fearing preacher Father (Giancarlo Esposito ) weren’t so dead against it.

They may not realise it, but Zeke and his friends are also watching their community crumble. Barren housing blocks stand in rubble, graffiti adorns rumbling trains, one prominently espousing “HOPE.” The graffiti serves as a reminder that “we were here.”

“The Bronx is a war zone. Your community is dying. That’s why it will need leaders to save it,” his teacher tells him.

One of those hoping to affect change is Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits), a Latin-American city councillor, hoping to deliver what Mayor Koch has not.

The most enigmatic of all figures is DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a Kung-Fu inspired, ghetto gangster, who tags his hood and bounds off rooftops with joyous flair. But when he and Zeke both fight over a rare record store vinyl, an almighty chase ensues that will give rise to a long-lasting collaboration.

In the opening 90 min. episode, all roads lead to a dance competition at a heaving disco club, where Mylene is determined to win a dancing contest, and Zeke and Shaolin fight over bringing the vinyl to the DJ, either to impress Mylene or win crowd bragging rights. But when the club boss takes a shine to the prettiest new customer, the night will end in bloody violence.

Despite their feud, Shaolin later invites Zeke to “the flyest secret underground club,” The Get Down, where fat new sounds, breakdancing, a twin turntable DJ and an MC who has a way with words holds the crowd spellbound. Zeke may have just found his calling.

The authenticity of The Get Down is its best attribute. It looks and feels like an immersive, ’70s experience. The fashions are gaudy, the hair is high and the cultural references to Gerald Ford, cassettes, Star Wars, Bruce Lee, all add to the experience. The soundtrack draws upon Bad Girls, Earth Wind & Fire, Disco Inferno, Play That Funky Music, Boney M and the Bus Stop.

Justice Smith as Zeke is a charismatic new find. Delivering the romantic poetry is particularly challenging, but he throws his all into it. Shameik Moore as DJ Shaolin gets all the best entrances and exits on TV. Creatively filmed from his sneakers up, he glides like a gazelle across tenements and through open windows. Herizen Guardiola as Mylene is picture perfect as the object of desire, but who faces her own battles with her violent, religious father.

There are also elements of the tale that would be right at home in Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story or even a classic Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie, but here they are grungy, streetwise, and busting their way out of disco into hip hop.

The frenetic Lurhmann-editing is an excess, and interrupts us accessing the characters, and at one point I felt there was insufficient acknowledgment of a particularly violent incident. Everyone seemed to move on too quickly. But these are minor misgivings.

While I don’t really get Lurhmann’s personal experience of growing up in the ‘hood, he pulls it off thanks tonStephen Adly Guirgis’ fine storytelling.

If this is what we can expect from him stepping into TV, then the wait is worth it.

The Get Down premieres Friday on Netflix.

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