Published Aug 11, 2016Before Baz Luhrmann's mega-expensive The Get Down immerses us in its HD screen rendition of 1977's South Bronx — mythic but more-or-less faithful to its historical real world counterpart — it touches down in 1996. It's where hip-hop's Nas (the show's executive producer) provides the meta-narrative lyrics for a world-weary artist (presumably main protagonist Ezekiel "Books" Figuero, played by Justice Smith), who pontificates on where he's been and from. He sets the stage by recounting the strife encountered living in a bankrupt borough of New York City that was virtually excommunicated by way of Robert Moses' Cross Bronx Expressway, which sectioned off neighbourhoods and created ready-made ghettos almost overnight.
In the three episodes screened for critics, this is the setting, where slim economic prospects and hopelessness fuelled the rise of artistic expression in the emerging musical forms of hip-hop and disco. The gritty-yet-glossy narrative — such is the filmic wont of Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby) — plays out with a graffiti-tagged thematic flourish, highlighted with stock characters playing roles stippled with just enough nuance to escape caricature or stereotype.
Collaborators Nas, hip-hop historian Nelson George and rap legend Grandmaster Flash all help infuse the show with verisimilitude as it follows the lives of a group of South Bronx teens (dubbing themselves Fantastic Four Plus One) navigating both adolescence and the troubling textures of their surroundings. Structurally, it's a classic love story, here between poet Zeke from the hood and a Donna Summer-ish wannabe disco diva and preacher's daughter Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). Musically, the series is authentic to the era — what would be the point otherwise? — as are the wardrobe decisions, down to the afros, Kangols, Pumas and gold chains that symbolized the period.
A fictionalized Flash serves as the show's Zen master, and the acting ranges from raw (mostly from the emerging thespians in the cast) to subdued (Jaden Smith). Names like Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore, as the group's street savvy DJ) to Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, sparkling in what would otherwise a tiring gangster role) add colour. The show's title refers to the era's slang for party, and a party it is: soul, Latin, funk and disco sounds fuel a sometimes spotty story about lives lived and lost in the burned-out Bronx, and how hopefulness can topple avarice.
As a 12-episode series, The Get Down doesn't exactly set screens on fire, but it glows with a simmering intensity that's immensely watchable.