I feel like I should apologize for not getting to The Get Down sooner. But now that I’m here, I’m looking around what feels like a mostly empty room and wondering where everyone else is. Have you watched The Get Down? No? Why not? Maybe it doesn’t look like your bag—it’s a show co-created by Baz Luhrmann, he of the lurid cabaret colors and overly staged musical numbers. And it’s set in the Bronx in 1977, during the birth of hip hop, and it’s about a group of multi-ethnic kids clinging to music and art as their life raft in a city that is literally burning down around them.
Maybe it looks depressing, maybe it looks too different from the things you know. Maybe you don’t like hip hop. It doesn’t really matter if you like hip hop or not, though. Because The Get Down is about kids—teenagers, to be specific—on the cusp of adulthood and struggling with identity, community, and the clash of expectations versus dreams. The setting might be specific, but the story is universal.
The Get Down centers on Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith, Paper Towns), an orphaned teenager being raised by his aunt and her mostly unemployed boyfriend after his parents died. Zeke is a kid with a lot of potential, who has read “every book in the library”, plays the piano at church, and is a gifted poet. Zeke is talented enough to dream of more but bright enough to see how he’s trapped by poverty, and all that talent and anger is just begging for an outlet.
Enter Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore, Dope), a hustler and drug runner who is trying to get Grandmaster Flash to teach him the secret ways of the DJ. Yes, THAT Grandmaster Flash, here played by Mamoudou Athie, a relative newcomer who has one of the most distinctly cool screen presences in recent memory. (The real Grandmaster Flash acted as a music supervisor.) In one of the show’s most fun quirks, Flash is portrayed as a Kung Fu master training an apprentice, and the tone of Flash and Shao’s relationship brings a streak of 70s-authentic Kung Fu exploitation into the mix.
One thing The Get Down does really well is invoke specific cultural touchstones without directly referencing any one thing. Stranger Things stumbled for privileging nostalgia over real emotion, but The Get Down, though steeped in the 70s and counter-culture, doesn’t get lost in references and homages. People talk about Bruce Lee, but he isn’t a crutch for characterization. Likewise the way Star Wars—this is the summer of ’77, the summer of Star Wars—is integrated into the story is seamless and selective. We don’t need to recreate it or be endlessly reminded of it to understand its impact.
The Get Down is equal parts domestic drama, political procedural, and West Side Story, and the disparate nature of the narrative has led some to criticize it for being inconsistent or uneven. And yes, the story sprawls in every direction, taking in the streets, the clubs and the drag balls, the neighborhood church, and the halls of power (Jimmy Smits is EXCELLENT as a corrupt community leader called Papa Fuerte). Meghan O’Keefe at Decider wrote a great piece about the connection between the politics of The Get Down and real-life scumbag Robert Moses, but the scope of the show also echoes the scope of early hip hop, birthed at the crossroads of art and politics.
Wraparounds on each episode show us grown-up Zeke—played by Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs—as a successful rap star in the 1990s, but the fate of Shao and Zeke’s friends remains a mystery. Nas, also a music supervisor, raps for both young and old Zeke, but newcomer Herizen Guardiola sings for herself, belting out gospel and disco with equal power. Guardiola stars as Mylene Cruz, object of Zeke’s affection, and she feels like the real discovery of this young, talented cast. Mylene is desperate to not only get out of the Bronx but also the suffocating grip of her Pentecostal preacher father (Giancarlo Esposito). Her story could be that of any young girl dreaming of city lights, and Guardiola perfectly captures the disillusionment of an ingénue. And the most tantalizing aspect of those glimpses of those future wraparounds is what happened to Mylene.
There’s so much to love in The Get Down—Jaden Smith as an acid-tripping space cadet graffiti artist is PERFECT casting—but its most infectious quality is joy. Despite the crushing poverty in which Zeke and his friends live, and despite the impending doom of the simultaneous crack and AIDS epidemics that are just waiting to devastate their community even further, The Get Down is a story full of life and passion.
There is no more joyous moment in pop culture this year than Zeke’s first rap battle. It’s ELECTRIFYING to hear this young man, teetering on the brink of destruction or transformation, find his voice and find his power in his voice. We know what hip hop will become, how it will change not only American culture, but the world at large. But in that moment, when it doesn’t even have a name yet, it’s just a kid unlocking his whole self through music and words. All of Zeke’s anger and frustration pours out in a fierce, scathing snarl, in a rhythm and rhyme that will be debated and derided for decades as less artistic, less musical, less worthy, and yet in that moment, it’s beyond music or art. It’s power, and a person learning to wield it.