New music, without so much as a name, smolders on the embers of the burnt out Bronx. The end of a decade approaches. Disco is alive and she is the queen. But in less than two years this new music will rise from the smoke of Disco’s death. It will become the number one genre in popular music. It will do what no other form of music has ever done. It will become a global phenomenon that will change the world.
The Netflix series, The Get Down tells the story of hip-hop’s birth against the backdrop of Disco’s decadence, The Bronx’s poverty, and Manhattan’s white wealth on the political backs of the city’s black and browns. This is a tale of hip-hop. And it’s told through love. Love for music. Love for your crush. Love for community. The Get Down is a colorful, energetic tale of hopes, dreams, pain and innocence. It is a story of aspirations. Aspirations to be the best you can be. Even in a world that fights you every step of the way.
The Get Down is a musical drama set in The Bronx, New York during 1977 and 1978 focusing on a fictitious rap group of Black and Puerto Rican teens called, The Get Down Brothers. Its one season is split into eleven episodes (although IMDB.com suggests there were supposed to be twelve episodes?). The show chronicles their rise to neighborhood stardom. Stardom in a genre of music that didn’t even have a name yet. And this is one of the things I enjoyed about the series. Its authenticity. A lazier storyteller may have called their music, hip-hop from the beginning…or at least rap. But those words are never actually used on the show except to ridicule it. One character scoffs, “This hip hoppity stuff of yours”. No one quite knew what to call rap music. There was no band. No instruments. And the “rappers” were using other people’s records for their sound. This leads to another thing I liked about The Get Down–its attention to detail. As a native New Yorker, I remember Mayor Ed Koch’s campaign against graffiti, the blackout of ’77, and my mother’s multi-colored leather handbag one of the characters had on her shoulder. The Get Down gets these little details correct which creates an authentic visual of 1970’s New York. The series is also beautifully shot with excellent use of stock photography woven into the original narrative.
In contrast, Disco was the cool, hip, edgy music of the day. The Get Down uses Disco and the story of Mylene Cruz, an aspiring Puerto Rican singer from the Bronx as a counterpoint. I thought that was brilliant because while Hip-Hop was fighting for recognition and being ridiculed by the community that would one day embrace it…Disco was Queen. But unbeknownst to the world, Disco was about to die a fiery death by 1980. Hip-Hop would surge to become a multi-billion dollar industry.
Both seasons of The Get Down are quite different. Audiences will love or hate some of the creative decisions. A mass audience may tire of the kung fu aesthetic and musical numbers of season one. And be completely turned off of the decision to use comic book and cartoon narrative storytelling in season two. I love creative experimentation but I did not enjoy the cartoon aspect. It wasn’t a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? kind of thing with real people interacting with cartoons. It was more Boondocks meets Jackson Five. I found myself fast forwarding those sequences. If you cut those parts out you didn’t miss anything. In slight defense of the writers, The Get Down’s source material is in fact a graphic novel. I just felt this plot device to be unnecessary and overdone. Another criticism I have is its, “everything but the kitchen sink” style of storytelling. We have the primary storylines of The Get Down Brothers and their rise to ghetto fame, Mylene Cruz’s rise to Disco star, a love story between Mylene and Ezekiel “Books” Figueroa (lead rapper of The Get Down Brothers), Mylene’s conflicts with her religious zealot father played by the brilliant Giancarlo Esposito who only wants her to sing Christian songs and not the devil’s music, Mylene’s uncle, Papa Fuerte (Jimmy Smits) who is a local Bronx politician trying to rebuild The Bronx into something beautiful through urban planning, Manhattan’s corrupt politicians and real estate developers, a homicidal paedophile gangster named Fat Annie (she even kills kittens), turf wars between gangs and hip-hop deejays who the show treats as “gods,” Jaden Smith’s Dizzy who is a closet homosexual with an interracial love affair, and a clandestine affair between Mylene’s uncle and her mother. And then you have the shady record exec, commentary on the music industry (A musician once said “If the devil had a business it would be the music industry), the pull of street life versus making music and broken families. All of this is in eleven episodes. So the only major criticism I have of The Get Down is that it does suffer under the weight of too much creativity.
While I have some criticisms of how the story is told it is the acting that shines. Brilliant, stand out performances from newcomers and veteran actors alike. The underrated, Oscar worthy talent Jimmy Smits brings a phenomenal, sincere and tortured soul aspect to his performance as a corrupt politician who has his heart in the right place. Giancarlo Esposito, also a veteran, should get an Emmy as the pentecostal preacher with the sexy church girl daughter who doesn’t want to be a church girl anymore. Newcomer Herizen F. Guardiola turns in an endearing and sensual performance as that church girl/but I want to be a bootylicious singer, Mylene Cruz. The scene stealers of the series however are veteran actress, Lilias White as Fat Annie and newcomer, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Cadillac. Whenever they appear in an episode they are memorable and when they do not they are missed. Abdul-Mateen’s performance as a disco dancing gangster is nothing short of masterful. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the two best scenes, season one’s Justice Smith’s character of Books reciting a poem about the death of his mother (not a spoiler we know he’s an orphan) and a scene in season two between Books and Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) having a physical confrontation about family on a dark Bronx street.
Sadly, it doesn’t appear as though we will get more of The Get Down. There were production delays and an inflated budget of $120 million dollars (why did this show have the budget of a summer blockbuster to begin with?) shackling its future. And although Netflix is notorious for not providing streaming numbers, it is safe to say that it was probably not hitting goals. In fact the story ends somewhat abruptly after episode 11. It appears as though Baz Luhrmann, the show runner was told, “hey we’re pulling the plug. No episode 12 so wrap up as best you can.” I would love to see these characters go on. As a writer myself I have ideas on some great storylines for Books, Cadillac, Dizzy, Mylene and Fat Annie in particular. Hopefully we will continue to see the actors that play them in future roles, however. Overall I’d give The Get Down an 8.5/10 and a must see.