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Sunday, 14 August 2016

Is Netflix's Get Down a let down?

Contributed by Colin Mc Mahon

The rise of Netflix original content over the last few years has been both spectacular and relentless. Having been drip fed new programming in the early days of Lilyhammer and House of Cards, we're now being treated to new shows on an almost monthly basis. And as the output has grown, so too have the budgets. The upcoming Queen Elizabeth II biopic The Crown is said to have had a budget of $100 million but it is this month's new addition, Baz Luhrmann's musical period drama The Get Down, that has garnered the accolade of being "Netflix's most expensive series yet" with a budget of $120 million. With a gargantuan investment like that, Netflix's expectations for an equally gargantuan return are obviously quite high and it's an expectation that The Get Down does and doesn't deliver on, depending on how you approach the show.

Set amidst the birth of hip hop and the burgeoning disco scene of 1977, The Get Down chronicles the lives of a group of young friends trying to find their way in the South Bronx. Series lead Zeke (Justice Smith) is an intelligent teen with a talent for writing, who initially lacks the direction and courage to fully embrace his gift. His newfound nemesis and later friend, Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) is an equally as directionless graffiti artist and hustler who shares Zeke's love for music. Inspired by their hero Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), Zeke and Shaolin want to follow in his musical footsteps but their differing principles often set them at loggerheads with each other. It is their tumultuous friendship that forms one of the central arcs of this first batch of six episodes (the second batch premieres next year).

Rounding out Zeke and Shaolin's motley crew of fledgling rap stars are the young Kipling brothers Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), Boo-Boo (T.J Brown Jr) and graffiti artist Dizzee (Jaden Smith). Also featured are Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), Zeke's love interest and wannabe disco star whose ambitions are at odds with the values of her deeply religious family. Her uncle, tough city politician Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits) wants to help her realise her dream. Meanwhile, sleazy nightclub proprietor Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who runs the Les Inferno nightclub with his exuberant crime boss mother Fat Annie (Lillias White), vies for Mylene's affections. There are plenty more characters entering the fray along the way and that is one of the issues facing the show's early episodes. There are so many characters on the canvas, that the narrative can feel disjointed at times. It does eventually kind of come together but there are periods when you're left wondering how they're going to tie together the adolescent adventures of a group of teens, the political machinations of city hall and the goings on in a dodgy disco, without it feeling overly contrived.

And therein lies The Get Down's biggest problem. The writing. Tonally it is all over the place. One moment we're immersed in the innocent, boy's own adventures of Zeke and co. who are rambling around the Bronx like some sort of inner city version of The Goonies. Next thing, we're thrown headlong into a bloody nightclub shootout that wouldn't look out of place in Scarface. Which would be fine, if it moved the narrative along somewhat but a few episodes later and we're still following the teen angst of Zeke and his puppy love for Mylene, with the various incidences of murder, drug dealing and body disposal appearing like minor asides to the more whimsical storyline of teen love and youthful ambition. The teen and adult plot threads in this show don't make for easy bedfellows and attempts to merge the two, leave you feeling like you're watching parts snatched for separate shows. One part teen drama, one part crime drama, another part fantasy. Of course, they may just be laying the groundwork what's going to come together in the second part of the season but so far, it's all feels a bit muddled. As well as the narrative issues, some of the dialogue can feel a bit clunky and expository at times. This can often happen in opening episodes but of particular note, is the scene between Zeke and Mylene in the closing stages of the sixth episode, which basically sounds like they're just reading the logline for the upcoming episodes.

On a positive note, with this being a Baz Luhrmann production, there is a certain aesthetic quality that has come to be expected from the man who brought us Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, and this is delivered in droves. An energetic nightclub scene in episode one and a colourful Soho loft party in episode six are standouts that bear all of the bright lights and pageantry that are hallmarks of Luhrmann's best known work. The polished look is carried throughout the show, which again adds to the unevenness in tone, as even the ghettos don't look that ghettoized at times.

The show's real strong suit comes in the form of it's music. Rap superstar Nas acts as one of the show's producers as well as providing vocals for the grown up version of Zeke (Daveed Diggs) who we see in occasional flash forwards to 1996. Compared to other recent shows like Glee andEmpire, the musical interludes in The Get Down never feel laboured or unnecessary. The songs all go naturally with the flow of the episodes and include an excellent mix of classic tracks from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Donna Summer alongside new recordings from Zayn, Christina Aguilera and cast members including Jaden Smith and Herizen F. Guardiola. There's some strong standout performances among the cast too. Justice Smith effortlessly portrays the vulnerability of Zeke as a young boy trying to choose between what he wants to do and what he thinks he should do. Kevin Corrigan is particularly memorable as down and out record producer Jackie Moreno and the brief glimpses we see of Lillias White as Fat Annie are always a delight.

Forgiving it it's narrative and writing issues, the key to enjoying The Get Down is to accept that it's a fantastical look at the era rather than a gritty dissection of life in late 70's New York. This isn't The Wire in flared trousers. For those looking for a realistic portrayal of New York gang culture and the birth of hip hop, you'd be better served by watching documentaries like 80 Blocks from Tiffany'sWild Style or Fresh Dressed (currently on Netflix). The Get Down is magic realism. A fairytale if you will. One which is nice to look at and pleasing to listen to but at times, a chore to follow.

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