Streaming: Trying to figure out Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down

Streaming: Trying to figure out Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down

The Netflix series The Get Down has the twin distinctions of being both idiosyncratic and inevitable. In quick—and not wholly accurate, but bear with me—description, it’s a kind of musical comic book about the emergence of hip-hop in the Bronx of the late 1970s. That media-mashing approach gets at the surface idiosyncrasy. That’s not an extant genre, right?

But, on the other hand, hip-hop has for years now been mainstream, and comic-book stories are hardly underrepresented in film and TV these days. Netflix, in particular, has embraced them for material: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage, among others, have all been plucked recently from the comics and made as Netflix Originals. So, that combination, hip-hop and comic books, isn’t outlandish, conceptually.

The historical subject demands the inclusion of music, of course–both the already popular music of the time, as soundtrack and background, and the nascent genre that the heroes help define and develop as a primary aspect of the storyline. And, after all, this is the era of Hamilton—why wouldn’t there be a comic book hip-hop musical? It’s a timely combination for trend watchers and marketers, if no one else.

And that raises the question: For whom is The Get Down intended? I am honestly unsure—which is not to say that the series is without appeal. Personally, I think it both amusing and annoying, and I find myself poring over its details with more attention than its slick and playful tone really seems to warrant. This may be a compliment to the show’s creators, the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and director Baz Luhrmann—but I’m not sure yet.

Guirgis (a University at Albany grad, by the way) is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose plays are praised especially for their deft use of the many dialects of the writer’s native New York City. Luhrmann is the director of Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and Moulin Rouge, among others.

So, hmm: The Bronx, rap music, all with a pow-zing comic-book aesthetic? A city poet with a knack for the language of the streets, and a director with a penchant for vibrant, colorful (not to mention expensive) set pieces? Perfect! But, then, also, the Bronx, rap music, all with a pow-zing comic-book aesthetic? Two middle-aged white guys, one of them Australian? Terrible!

Whatever The Get Down is, it’s not accidental. The set design walks an admirably fine line between stylized and graffiti-influenced movie urbanity and cluttered realism—injected bits of late ’70s documentary footage of a near-ruined NYC are well deployed. (Amazing what a budget of $10 million an episode will get you.) The well-cast young actors are sure and charismatic, and the older, more established ones (Jimmy Smits, Kevin Corrigan and Giancarlo Esposito, among them) are no slouches. The episodes are visually engaging and fun, the history presented keeps a balance of Rap History/Technique 101 for the uninitiated and inside-joke name-dropping for the know-it-alls.

And maybe that’s the issue for me: West Coast rap got its dramatic due with Straight Outta Compton. Maybe the dangerous appeal of gangster rap more strongly suggested serious treatment. Arguably, the social-orientation of early rap, with its DJs and MCs innovating like mad geniuses just to keep the party going, is best served by a production infused with fun. It’s petty to criticize The Get Down for not being a different series, or one its creators did not intend to make.

As mentioned, the show is, generally, fun, even if its characterizations and plot points are too comic book-esque for my tastes. And, in fairness, I have not yet finished the series, so I cannot say if the nested student-becomes-the-master storylines pay off in a satisfying way. Sometimes even comic books do that.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll try to lighten up, enjoy the fun for what its worth—and wait patiently for the Last Poets biopic while rewatching the Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme documentary.  

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