Early in HBO’s flashy but doomed ’70s rock drama “Vinyl,” there was a memorable scene in which a stressed-out record label executive in New York, played by Bobby Cannavale, finds himself too far uptown (his chauffeured car has taken a detour) and overhears a strange rhythm coming from a party in a predominantly black neighborhood. Tantalizingly, the music seems to be coming from two turntables, manned by a DJ who scratches the records back and forth while the crowd moves to synchronized layers of beats. It was one of “Vinyl’s” few truly enthralling moments, suggesting that the real future of music was in the air as early as 1973.
“The Get Down,” a lavish but frenetically flawed Netflix series from film director Baz Luhrmann and a host of collaborators, is on a similar hunt to mythologize and celebrate the nascent days of hip-hop, as seen through a fictional group of young Bronx teenagers in the sweltering summer of 1977.
The first episode, far too long at almost 90 minutes, melds Luhrmann’s visual and aural elegance (his films include “Moulin Rouge,” “Australia” and “The Great Gatsby”) with a sincere reverence for his subject matter. The colors, the sounds, the vibe of the show – it’s all over the place, adhering to no fixed structure or momentum. It oozes originality, while acknowledging that the hip-hop beat (known to these kids as “the get down”), at its essence, is a product of excessive borrowing, sampling and mixing. The DJ provides the beat and the “wordsmiths” (proto rappers) take it from there, in much the same way that the subway cars provide a canvas for the gloriously imagined signatures in spray-paint that elevated graffiti to art.
“The Get Down” shows a similar mastery for sampling and tagging, borrowing from every possible source, from the imaginary conflict ballets of “West Side Story” to the situational junkyard ethics of “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” To that you can add the Eastern mysticism of martial arts movies, the full glory of Travolta-era disco, and the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” days of New York’s urban malaise. It’s the very grit that gave life to so much late 20th-century culture; the same grit “Vinyl” tried to harness as a narrative backdrop.
“The Get Down” is more successful than “Vinyl” in that regard, becoming a sort of gnostic gospel of hip-hop by taking the parts that were true (or almost true) and polishing them decades later with quasi-religious fervor and a dramatization that approaches the liturgical. There are hip-hop messiahs here (Grandmaster Flash, who is now 58 and lends the series the same expertise that Mick Jagger provided to “Vinyl”) as well as tempting devils who brandish the rewards of crime – including Jimmy Smits in his best role in years, as Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, a kickback-motivated Bronx politician.
“The Get Down” is undeniably interesting to watch, but I feel it’s my duty to also say: What a mess.
The first episode struggles with the basic rules of viewer seduction, but a story emerges anyhow of the unlikely friendship between Ezekiel “Books” Figuero (Justice Smith), an artistically gifted but unmotivated teenager, and Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). The two desire to form a DJ crew to produce beats and rhymes that may one day rival that of their hero, Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie).
Books is in love with Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola), the niece of Papa Fuerte. Mylene’s ambitions to become the next Donna Summer are thwarted by her holy-roller father (“Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito), a pastor who forbids secular music in his home and church.
Meanwhile, the young Kipling brothers (Skylan Brooks, T.J. Brown Jr. and Jaden Smith) form the rest of Books and Shaolin’s would-be crew, dubbing themselves “the Fantastic Four + One.” The boys make an early, dangerous mistake, however, when they come into a bootleg cassette of one of Grandmaster Flash’s sets and (unbeknownst to Shaolin) charge admission to a dance party at which they set up two turntables and pretend the music is theirs. They are caught faking it and must work to restore their credibility in the neighborhood.
It’s here that I began to sympathize with the monumental task “The Get Down” has set for itself. Not only is it trying to juggle a complex series of storylines (as all good TV dramas must), it is also trying to introduce a broad audience to a new ethical code, rooted in community and poverty, where committing a felony is fine but plagiarizing a DJ is an egregious transgression. Our heroes here are similar – yet strikingly different – from all the difficult, dishonest protagonists to which viewers are accustomed, be they mafia members, meth dealers or Madison Avenue ad execs. “The Get Down” revels in what some might call delinquency, vandalism, hooliganism and noise. (Gee, Officer Krupke – haven’t you learned anything in 60 years?)
I applaud “The Get Down” for its ability to flip such caricatures and let life be complicated for these black and Latino kids from moment to moment – which is what clearly informs their art. Luhrmann and company’s fanciful flourishes here remind me of the portraits by painter Kehinde Wiley, in which the authenticity of the hard streets becomes a Technicolor burst of regal splendor. In their striving, Books Shaolin, Mylene and their friends see fame and fortune as the only worthy fantasy; they are most awed when in the presence of shaggy ’70s luxury, riding in the back seats of tricked-out sedans or glimpsing the high-life in upholstered dance clubs. The pot of gold at the end of their rainbows is filled with piles of cash.
You find yourself wanting it for them – and in flash-forward segments at the show’s outset, you get the satisfaction of knowing at least one of them made it big in the 1990s and is looking back on it all with nostalgia and perhaps some regrets.
The writing, though. The dialogue. The structure. The uneven performances. There are some real problems here that a flair for art direction cannot solve. After the first episode, Luhrmann hands the directing reins over to others who deliver something more like a TV series, but with a notable reduction in musical magic and other forms of fairy dust. (There are six episodes now; another six are expected next year.) For now, “The Get Down” is an exercise in glorious imperfection; it’s got the beat, but it’s still grasping for the tone.