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Guardiola (left) and Smith in a scene from The Get Down.

Celebrating a unique cultural movement

Aug 12, 2016 5:50 AM

DEPICTING a pivotal moment in African-American history by way of a TV series is nothing new but when seen through the candy-coloured lens of Baz Luhrmann, it promises to be, at the very least, a Cultural Event.

The Get Down often lives up to that promise. Brash and ambitious, stylised and exuberant, this Netflix series (the first six parts are released on Aug 12) celebrates the distinctive music, attitude and youth-driven cultural movement known as hip-hop, which developed amid an atmosphere of urban decay and gang violence in poverty-stricken sections of New York City in the late-1970s.

Young people in search of something better expressed their frustrations creatively through rap music, break-dancing and graffiti street art. They sifted through the crime-ridden, graffiti-soaked rubble of New York, the badly-damaged "colossus by the Hudson", for inspiration and found a collective voice in this thing, this art form called hip-hop.

Luhrmann, who co-created the show with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, meticulously researched the subject and collaborated with some of the pioneers who lived through the era (like the DJ Grandmaster Flash) in order to create an authentic voice, with a need to "get it right", as Luhrmann says. As a result, every detail - from the broken-down neighbourhoods to the Afro hairdos, the bell-bottoms pants and the big-collar shirts - is present and accounted for.

It also doesn't hurt that Luhrmann's wife, the costume designer Catherine Martin, is an executive producer on the show.

The South Bronx in the summer of 1977 is a war zone of sorts, serving as the backdrop for the series as it follows a group of poor Black and Latino teenagers led by Ezekiel "Books" Figueroa (Justice Smith), a teen with a talent for rhyming poetry. He's sweet on Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola), the daughter of over-zealous Pentecostal minister Ramon Cruz (Giancarlo Esposito), whose businessman brother Francisco (Jimmy Smits) has plans to develop the neighbourhood and is willing to pay off corrupt officials to realise his dream.

Ezekiel, Mylene and their friends have ambitions of their own. Mylene has a singing voice "like how butterscotch taste" and is fixated on being the next Donna Summer, while Ezekiel discovers his "superpowers" when he teams up with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a fleet-footed graffiti artist intent on acquiring superior DJ-ing skills. Shaolin is mentored on the art of mixing by Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who rules the underground music scene with his spectacular ability to use twin turntables and pinpoint the get down - the voiceless section of a vinyl record that focuses on a continuous beat, which allows for an MC, or wordsmith, to rap over it.

A significant section of the 90-minute first episode, directed by Luhrmann, takes place inside Les Inferno, a dance club run by the gangster Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his mother Fat Annie (Lillias White). Here, disco isn't dead yet, but the beginnings of a new musical movement, led by the likes of Flash, are taking root. Subsequent episodes follow the main characters on their journey of discovery, accompanied by a soundtrack that will bring back pleasant memories to viewers of a certain vintage.

The Get Down doesn't grab viewers by the scruff of the neck, but it grows on you and makes a positive impression, especially when given an opportunity to review proceedings and admire the attention to period detail, listen to the music and witness the genesis of a movement that comes out of "the broke-down belly of a hungry beast". Life and destiny and watching these kids carve out a kingdom for themselves - that's The Get Down. You'll want to tag along as the beat goes on, and on.

Rating: B

  • The first six episodes of The Get Down premieres on Netflix on Aug 12