With dozens of characters introduced in the pilot episode, Baz Luhrmann's story of early hip hop fails to find its flow
The greatest trick the devilish Netflix ever played was understanding the value of a good dump. This week sees the arrival of The Get Down on all of the streaming giant’s global services. With it, comes arguably one of the messiest pilot episodes about the 1970s New York music scene since Vinyl debuted on HBO earlier this year, ended in sharp, exaggerated record scratch that wasn’t a hit with viewers and was hastily put back inside the record sleeve, never to be played again. The Get Down opener spins its own disc in a similarly haphazard way, skipping here and there, dragged back by an over-eager DJ with a heavy hand to the same beats. But knowing there are five more episodes available there and then to carry the plot along can make all the difference in convincing viewers to stick with it.
The Get Down’s manic energy and overtly camp performances come from Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann, whose lurid devotion to excess worked perfectly with the sequins sequences of Strictly Ballroom and the Shakespearean melodrama of Romeo + Juliet, but when unrestrained can bloat a feature like Australia into a mess. Working with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Get Down represents Lurhmann’s first move from the silver screen to the small, and was reportedly a decade in development before Netflix finally signed on.
It hasn’t been the happiest of marriages, with rumours running wild about the budget spiralling out of control – costing roughly $10m per episode, the music rights and costume design alone mean you’re left with a cast of relative unknowns heading the drama, and heavy is the head that wears afros that big. The debut season, the most expensive show Netflix has ever made, comes split in two, the second half not scheduled for their global dump till 2017.
Justice Smith and Herizen Guardiola star as Zeke and Mylene in The Get Down [Netflix]
The plot, at its core, revolves around two teenagers, Ezekiel (Justice Smith) and Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). The former is an overly intense lyrical prodigy, a beat poet orphan living in the projects in the Bronx, pining after his Dominican love interest Mylene, the daughter of a pastor who’s more interested in becoming a disco diva than doing the Lord’s work. Shaolin, parkouring his way around the Aleppo-esque rubble of the New York borough in pristine red Pumas while kung fu music scores his every leap, is a wannabe DJ and a member of drug queenpin Fat Annie’s crew. They meet, tussling over a rare LP, becoming fast friends at an underground party where Zeke discovers his skills as a wordsmith might just be at the cutting edge of something about to explode.
As the driving force for a series, the sound and fury and eagerness of the duo’s relationship make for fine drama. The problem comes when everything else gets added to the playlist; Luhrmann piles on dozens of characters in the opening episode, making The Get Down feel like The Wire jacked into an amp. In a Venn diagram spinning out of control like a disco ball, scattering some of the characters you’d most like to see all over the place, add in Fat Annie’s gang and her son Cadillac, the predatory manager of the Les Inferno nightclub. Then there’s the Shao and Zeke’s school friends and band mates, their well-meaning teacher, and their parents/guardians. All that is topped up with The West Wing’s Jimmy Smits and Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito as a property bigshot and the Pentecostal pastor, who just happen to be brothers, and gang warfare over whose turf is whose.
Squeezing all that pulp into an opening mush of thirty minutes, getting used to Luhrmann’s excessive style while following all the stories on screen requires a kind of focus modern viewers don’t readily offer. Peppered with dashes of magical realism and plenty of song and dance numbers, it’s really only the last half hour of the pilot that aims to get things off the ground. But there are moments when the frenetic energy on screen gives way to undeniably wonderful scenes, where disco and break dancing weave sinuously into the storytelling like a modern interpretation of West Side Story. Where high notes and ballads beat their way through the dazzle and daze to sucker punch you into caring. Where character fire off flows that tease at the excitement of something unheard of before.
And it’s those moments that help the mess of The Get Down get right back up again.
Rating: ★★★/5 Not quite a bungle in the Bronx, but there’s enough good material here to hope for better storytelling down the line.
The Get Down Season One is release on August 12th on Netflix, with the second half of the season coming in 2017. To listen back to the TV on the Radio podcast from today's Moncrieff, please click on the podcast below: