Shaolin’s the DJ that we call conductor
‘Cause Shaolin Fantastic’s a bad motha–
Amid the many lyrics sung, said and slung in “The Get Down” — Baz Luhrmann’s enthusiastic retelling of how hip-hop was created from an energized blend of disco and soul music — no other is packed with such transformative passion as the above one-two mantra. Stated as simply as a line reading but immediately recognized for the poetic potential within, the string of words form a declarative statement not only for The Fantastic Four + 1 — a street crew led by the aforementioned Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) and his wordsmith, Books (Justice Smith) — but an embodiment of what makes “The Get Down” a wholly unique and deeply compelling feat of television.
By taking a musical genre overexposed and misunderstood in the modern day and breaking it down in the past to its component parts, Luhrmann has created a fantastic and fresh blend of his own: a TV show told as a film, a music video told as a six-hour miniseries and an original story holding more truth than most true stories.
That being said, if you’re not a fan of Luhrmann’s trademark direction — propulsive edits, vivid images and a wild, constantly moving camera — good luck with the first 90 minutes. The auditory master lets his visual style spring directly from the rhythms within the story (as always), creating a sweeping drive to the feature-length first episode of “The Get Down.” What makes this project stand out over the director’s past efforts, including his collaboration with Jay-Z for “The Great Gatsby” score, is how dominant the music is overall — and why its central place in the story justifies the manic energy of how it’s captured. Luhrmann’s passion for properly recreating the essence of hip-hop’s inspirations is evident in every frame he shoots, whipping together what’s essentially a finished film about Bronx kids trying to find their way in this world through music and the parents who want to protect them.
Things slow down a bit in episodes two through six (making up “Part 1” of two in the series’ first season), even if certain musical moments — namely the finale’s showstopper — edge back toward Baz’s impossible-to-imitate style. (He was on set as showrunner throughout.) But no matter. After an hour-and-a-half in Luhrmann’s world, everything that comes after retains his vivacity in spirit, if not presentation. The story and characters remain grounded in a world where love conquers all: Be it love for one another, one’s community, one’s profession or one’s self, “The Get Down” puts idealism in a historical context, giving it authenticity while perfectly contrasting what’s missing in most modern music.
And its two leads miraculously hold it all together. Herizen F. Guardiola, a relative first-timer, plays Mylene Cruz, a young woman with big dreams of becoming a disco star — much to the chagrin of her reverend father (“Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito). Her vocal talent is evident from the first time she belts out a gospel hymn, making it easy to believe why she’s so focused on moving up the ladder and moving on from the Bronx. But Guardiola really proves herself in the intimate moments with her co-star, Justice Smith. As Ezekiel “Books” Figuero, Smith (previously seen in “Paper Towns”) is a true discovery. He and Guardiola achieve an impressive level of chemistry for actors with such short resumes, but the demands placed on Smith’s shoulders are immense — from the technical prowess of being a believable wordsmith to the dramatic pressures of playing a kid who understands the world like a much older man — and never once does he falter.
Beyond the sterling performances and addictive soundtrack, what carries “The Get Down” is the sheer passion infused into every element in this immense production. Luhrmann has described the endeavor as a curation of all the right elements, reaching out to experts who lived through this period — like Grandmaster Flash, who’s also a character in the series, executive producer Nelson George and Nas, who wrote a massive chunk of Books’ inspired lyrics — to make sure his story was sincere. As an audience, we feel that all the way through, making “The Get Down” more than a heart-swelling love story, more than a fresh perspective on the TV scene, more than minority story never before told and more than an astounding musical production.
Luhrmann’s fictional interpretation of hip-hop’s birth is a visceral rush of beautiful everything — and one bad motha–.
“The Get Down” Season 1 (Part 1) debuts all six episodes August 12, exclusively on Netflix.