Back in February, when TV critics gleefully piled on HBO’s beleaguered Vinyl, the most common complaint concerned the show’s outré perspective on the primacy of rock and roll and the people (mostly white men) who made and profited from it. The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum memorably described the little-loved ’70s drama as “a ballad of rockism cranked to 11.”
The implication was that rock is uniquely susceptible to hectoring hagiography presented in the form of an “edgy” prestige drama. However, Netflix has offered an unwitting counter-argument in The Get Down, a wildly ambitious and woefully misguided drama set against the genesis of hip-hop in the Bronx of 1977. Like Vinyl — which was co-created by Martin Scorsese, who also directed the pilot — The Get Down is spearheaded by an A-list director, Baz Luhrmann, who’s been empowered as the show’s co-creator, executive producer, and reigning auteur to work on a large canvas, no matter the expense. Also like Vinyl, The Get Down is one of the costliest TV shows ever made; at $120 million, it cost even more than Vinyl.
Here’s where the Vinyl comparisons become really unflattering: While The Get Down promises an authentic portrayal of how the defining art form of the late 20th century came to be — among the producers are Grandmaster Flash, Nas, and the brilliant writer and critic Nelson George — the first three episodes actually deliver a silly, self-indulgent debacle. Often incoherent, frequently indecisive in terms of its style and tone, and, worst of all, inexplicably dull, The Get Down feels as connected to hip-hop history as “Disco Duck” was to the roots of New York club culture.
While it’s possible that The Get Down pulls it together later on its 12-episode run, the opening is so dire that many viewers will likely bail before then. The flabby 90-minute pilot, in particular, is an overcooked mess, haphazardly mixing documentary footage and references to real-life fixtures of New York’s nascent DJ scene with a wan coming-of-age story populated by appealing young actors saddled with fleshing out one-dimensional archetypes.
There’s Ezekiel (Justice Smith), a sensitive teenager who writes poetry about his troubled past and pines for Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), the nice preacher’s daughter with dreams of becoming the next Donna Summer. There’s Shaolin Fantastic (Dope‘s talented Shameik Moore), a graffiti artist who is studying the tao of DJing from the Grandmaster himself. There’s Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the requisite coked-out gangster with eyes for Mylene. A corps of distinguished ringers — including Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito, and Kevin Corrigan — do their best in thankless roles as the adult guardians of what’s largely a teen-dominated world.
In the early going, The Get Down can’t decide whether it wants to be a docudrama in the style of Netflix’s Narcos, or a nostalgia-driven teen story, à la Stranger Things. The troubled production history of the series — it took two and a half years to make and went over-budget by tens of millions of dollars — suggests that Luhrmann didn’t resolve these conflicting approaches until he was already deep in the weeds. The jettisoning of two experienced showrunners known for gritty dramas (The Shield‘s Shawn Ryan and Copper’s Thomas Kelly) hint at what could’ve been with a more disciplined hand at the wheel. Instead, The Get Down offers the absolute worst of Luhrmann, exhibiting his trademark gaudy filmmaking style in service of a thoroughly corny story.
This muddled approach is especially crippling to the pilot, which is only half as outrageous and 1/10th as charming as Luhrmann seems to think it is. It’s one thing for Luhrmann to underscore every move that Shaolin makes with a jokey kung-fu movie swoosh. But an overly stylized mass shooting set in a nightclub feels particularly tasteless coming so soon after Orlando, and speaks to Luhrmann’s lack of control over the material. After all, one of the main storylines of the pilot concerns whether a boy can sneak into a disco to play a record for the girl he likes. Does The Get Down take place in a universe where people are murdered indiscriminately, or is it supposed to be a hip-hop Grease?
In the next two episodes, The Get Down settles into the “nostalgic, coming-of-age” lane, using tantalizing flashes of vibrant archival footage mostly as window dressing. This registers as a modest improvement — at least The Get Down starts to make a little more sense — but it’s still not terribly engaging. Dramatic license is supposed to make history more exciting, but The Get Down does the opposite, taking what’s already a deeply engrossing and inherently American tale and reducing it to shallow pap.
What makes The Get Down even more frustrating are the all-too-brief passages when it finds proper focus. The best sequence of the first three episodes involves Grandmaster Flash (a slyly convincing Mamoudou Athie) teaching Shaolin how to a build a continuous beat on two turntables. Not only is this scene instructive as to how hip-hop was invented, it also respects the mystery of what can only be described as a magic trick. Probing the delicate architecture of hip-hop’s early building blocks proves to be far more satisfying from a narrative perspective than the endless “Will they or won’t they?” entanglements of Ezekiel and Mylene’s love story. Hopefully, The Get Down will venture back in this direction in future episodes, but similarly illuminating sequences are in short supply early on.
Books like Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback have told fascinating, panoramic stories about the rise of hip-hop as both art and industry. The tale is sprawling, but a TV show would have the breadth to do it justice. The Get Down, however, is not up to the task, at least not based on the first three episodes. Then again, maybe The Get Down was never intended to be that kind of show. Still portrayed in some sectors of the media as rock’s upstart rival, hip-hop in fact has been part of mainstream culture for about 40 years, and has now reached the point where the only people who still find it edgy are decrepit Fox News viewers and middle-aged Broadway patrons proud to be down with Hamilton. Otherwise tributes to hip-hop’s primacy threaten to be just as overbearing and watered-down as testimonials to the power of good ol’ rock and roll. To quote one of those grizzled classic-rockers: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.