Simply put, The Get Down is a little bit of everything I love. It’s a musical, but not where everyone breaks out into song- not that I would mind. It is a musically driven drama relying heavily on hip hop in its earliest stages, at a time when disco was at its peak. Seeing minor characters like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc appear on-screen, and hearing Donna Summer hits play in the background, make for a fun music appreciation lesson. Throw in some funk and latin jazz and I’m sold.
The Get Down opens in 1996 New York City, at what appears to be a huge rap concert by a performer we only catch in brief glimpses. The Netflix show was co-created by Baz Luhrmann, whom I loved before most folks (Strictly Ballroom is a family fave). While I’m not head over heels for any other Luhrmann project except William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, I love his aesthetic. There are nods to both Ballroom and R+J as well as others throughout the first episode, which Luhrmann directed. I mean come on, “You had me at ‘hello!’”
Somehow while I was chillin’ under a boulder, I didn’t know much about The Get Down when a friend asked me if I’d seen it yet. Luhrmann’s involvement was the only thing I knew about it when I finally started watching, so imagine my surprise when the rapper on stage opened his mouth and sounded exactly like Nasir Jones. To hear Nas’ voice as the rap-narrator (the lead character, Zeke, as an adult) made my heart smile. By the way, you will want to take heed the lyrics as they help set up certain episodes and key scenes. I didn’t realize who was lip syncing to Nas’ voice until they showed him again at the end- yes, that was Tony winning Daveed Diggs (from Hamilton!). I’m not wild about the lip syncing, but the fact that I love Nas and Diggs makes me forgive it.
The show takes us back to 1977 in South Bronx, where it focuses on a neighborhood that is broke and falling apart by the second, as its citizens struggle to cope. While trying to escape the reality of life, a group of teenagers find peace in music and other art. The show’s lead is the young version of the future rap star; a quietly bright Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith), whose parents were killed when he was young. He lives with his Aunt Wanda (Judy Marte) and her overly vocal boyfriend, Leon (Brandon J. Dirden), who comes off as borderline abusive. It turns out they both just want to challenge Zeke to work hard. Zeke is a poet and a romantic, in love with his friend, Mylene, who seems to underestimate what he has to offer. You root for Zeke at every turn, in spite of the many mistakes he makes; he’s a kid who has to experience life on his own.
Zeke’s best friends are brothers: Ra-Ra, Dizzee and Boo. They each have very distinct personalities of their own. Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) is the idea man who can rattle off facts about random topics. Dizzee (Jaden Smith) is the “weird” graffiti artist who sees the world through a whole different set of glasses from the rest of the crew. Dizzee actually drops a Strictly Ballroom line that is very true to his spirit: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” Boo (TJ Brown Jr.) is the youngest, but seems like the oldest, as he is cautious about every move they make. Their sister Yolanda (Stefanée Martin), is one of Mylene’s best friends.
Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola) is the apple of everyone’s eyes, especially Zeke. She is in denial of his love for her because she has such high hopes for her life, but isn’t sure about his own ambition. She lights a fire in him in more ways than one. She has the voice that makes everyone stop and listen, especially when she performs a solo at her father’s church. However, her conservative father, Pastor Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito) is not as excited about her dreams of secular stardom. Ramon wants so badly to distance himself from the colorful ways of gregarious and charismatic brother, Francisco (Jimmy Smits) that he keeps a tight hold on his daughter.
Smits plays the uncle we all want, let’s be honest. Francisco, a city councilman, cares deeply about the community and his family, and he will do anything to protect them and bring them happiness. His willingness to do almost anything causes him to be at odds with Ramon at times. He plays a major role in Mylene getting closer to her dream of being a disco star.
Then, there’s Shaolin Fantastic AKA Shao 007 (Shameik Moore, Dope), who’s a bit of a mystery in the eyes of Zeke and his friends. We’re introduced to Shao through Dizzee’s clear awe of his graffiti work. We don’t know much about him right off, but as the first episode develops you learn there will be an eternal connection between Shao and Zeke. Shao rocks a fresh pair of red Pumas and he parkours almost everywhere he goes. More importantly, he knows the streets, the dark side, and he knows the one and only Grandmaster Flash.
Shao becomes a guide for Zeke, showing him how to make his poetry into music. Between the two of them, there’s apparently nothing they can’t do. Shao is street smart and Zeke has his head in the books; Shao even dubs Zeke “Books,” which he uses as a stage name throughout his career. They both fall deeper in love with music and what they are creating, but no one in Zeke’s life understands this new hip hop movement- no one even calls it that yet! Shao doesn’t have a family so he’s free to give his heart to the music, but Zeke’s loved ones want him to focus on his education and being successful in the community. As Shao and Zeke get closer, and Zeke gets closer to Mylene, Shao becomes a bit Mercutio-like; jealous of her role in Zeke’s life. The Shao-Zeke-Mylene storyline has strong dramatic potential in Part 2 of the season.
Plenty of other characters contribute to this world: Mylene’s mother, Lydia (Zabryna Guevara, Gotham) who is torn between letting her daughter be free and obeying her husband; Mylene’s other best friend, Regina (Shyrley Rodriguez), whose experience reminds us just how naïve and sheltered Mylene really is; and washed-up music producer Jackie Moreno (Kevin Corrigan), who promises to create a hit for Mylene. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fat Annie (Lillias White) and her son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Maheen II), neighborhood drug dealers who run the night club, Les Inferno. These actors played the hell out of those roles; Fat Annie is scary!
The characters are rich and lively, but the themes are what make you keep coming back for more. It is truly 1977; black kids who idolize Bruce Lee and are excited about an upcoming little movie called Star Wars. The threat of gangs, the presence of drugs and the knowledge of mayhem at a local club, keep these otherwise innocent kids on their toes. The show borders on corny in some scenes with dance battles and nods to martial arts movies, but I love it for nostalgia’s sake. The setting makes The Get Down feel like home to me; something about it is strangely familiar. I’m an ‘80s baby and I’d never been to New York City until I was an adult, but it feels like I know it so well.
Like many people, I grew up watching plenty of movies and TV shows set in NYC, and this show was all of those stories in one: The Warriors, Beat Street, Fame, even I Like It Like That, along with so much more. In 1977, NYC went through major transitions, leaving people of color, especially those outside Manhattan, with little to nothing. We see footage, both real and dramatized, with images of the Son of Sam, Gerald Ford, Ed Koch and the madness all over the city at that time. It’s beautifully shot, and serves as a dramatized history lesson. When we see Ed Koch campaigning to a crowd off angry New Yorkers, talking about getting rid of graffiti and removing the “delinquents making racket,” they were in a space that looked desolate and depressing. The scenes that took place near dilapidated, even demolished housing projects, remind me of scenes from R+J, where Romeo would hang out with his friends; it even uses similar score.
The first episode plays like a feature length movie that can’t decide on its plot, but when you start rolling the story completely envelops you and you’re stuck. For a person who doesn’t normally binge watch, I was in a zone. It wasn’t like with HBO’s The Night Of, where I felt pressure to finish it so I could be ready for the water cooler talk; no one I know even watches The Get Down. I voluntarily gave this show my all. I wasn’t ready for the finale. I didn’t realize it was the end until the credits rolled, and I’m not sure how I felt about it. It may seem odd for me to say, but it felt too “wrapped-up.” I wanted another episode simply because I enjoy watching it, not because the story felt incomplete. I don’t particularly prefer cliffhangers, but the way it ended felt so final. It came off like there may not be more, although there is much more story to tell! There is certainly one major burning question: How does Zeke stay true to himself while chasing his own dreams?
As much I enjoy it, The Get Down is admittedly imperfect. Whenever I turn it off, I start asking questions I want it to answer and I tell myself I understand why people don’t like it. I even feel reluctant to recommend it. Then I turn it back on and I’m sucked right back in, and confused on how everyone I know hasn’t dropped everything to make this a priority viewing! I’m already watching the entire thing all over again, and seeing points I had missed the first time around. It’s interesting that a few other shows have come out and are praised for the feelings of nostalgia, but this show is being knocked by people who barely gave it a chance. I realize my reluctance to suggest the show is due to the expected skepticism from others. Shows featuring people of color are not allowed to be artsy, or drop knowledge, or be anything outside the box. I say give us more like this; I can’t wait for more!
Find it on Netflix now.