Each episode of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s take on the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in the late 1970s, opens with a big stadium concert for poet turned rapper Books (Justice Smith). The Netflix series sets out to trace Books’s path to stardom, and how he came to enrapture the humongous crowd that stands before him. But the fact that we already know that this young man eventually achieves this success zaps this vibrantly textured, narratively multifarious show of a great deal of tension. The choice to reveal and repeatedly reiterate Books’s immense triumph at the beginning of every episode effectively renders the story more about the steps of a destiny foretold than the unrelenting labor and devastating compromises that go into maintaining one’s status as a world-renowned artist.
The series opens with the rapper and his crew doing what you would expect New York teenage boys to be doing during the summer days and nights of the late ’70s: crushing on girls, tagging train cars, talking of urban legends related to the Bronx, and generally getting up to no good. Luhrmann and his creative team depict the New York City borough as one bad summer away from full-on chaos: entire neighborhoods are made up of ruins; homes are set ablaze for seemingly no reason; dope dealers, armed hoodlums, and corrupt politicians appear to the be the ones in power. The few parts of the Bronx that the criminals and politicians don’t control are gripped by devout religion, personified by Giancarlo Esposito’s Pastor Ramon Cruz.
The Get Down finds just as much interest in the gangland warfare that surrounds crime boss Fat Annie (Lillias White) as it does in the DJ culture led by Grandmaster Flash (Mamouda Athie). The show’s creators depict all these elements as equally influential in Books’s perspective on the world, and do so with a far larger scope than almost any other teen-focused program currently on the air. The series’s pace and editing is snappy and exhilarating, especially during an early scene at Fat Annie’s club, Les Infernos, where a hit on Annie’s hothead son, Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), goes wrong.
Too much of the Netflix series feels dictated by the setup and pay-off rules of popular storytelling.
The show’s ensemble evokes an emotional landscape of cultural and personal disappointments, tragedies, and quick streaks of good luck. At one point, Pastor Cruz is confronted by his brother, political hustler “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits), about how his church was bought by illicit activities. The pastor brushes the accusation off, but Smits and Esposito’s nuanced deliveries convey the resentment that their characters harbor: The pastor is bitter for having to rely on his brother’s corruption to build his church, while Papa Fuerte despises how high and mighty the pastor remains. In a perfect representation of their relationship, Cruz attempts to center a picture of Jesus on the wall, but it’s Papa Fuerte who has the perspective to tell him that it looks centered from a few dozen feet away.
Despite several similarly rewarding sequences, The Get Down’s writing is too schematic and beholden to familiar narrative structures. The actors’ energetic performances, like the details of the Bronx locales, feel subordinate to the constant setting up or compounding of a climactic beat. When Books’s best friend (and not-so-secret crush) Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) has the chance to impress a record producer at church, the focus isn’t on how she and Books transform a hymn to a catchy pop tune, but rather how she continues to defy her rigid, bible-thumping father. Likewise, when Fat Annie gives Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), Books’s DJ and a legend in the graffiti world, half of a dollar bill in anticipation of his artistic failure, the professional tragedy that brings him back feels brazenly telegraphed.
Too much of the series feels dictated by the rules of popular storytelling, while other scenes are more focused on where Books will end up rather than where he is for most of the series. By failing to clearly depict how Books takes in the world and expresses it in his writing and burgeoning flow, The Get Down suggests that his real gift is blind luck. From what’s on display throughout the series, one could reasonably believe that those are the only real requirements for getting a young man from the tenements to the big stage.