‘The Get Down’ Is Multitextured Brilliance
I finished binge-watching The Get Down over a week ago. And even though Part 1 of its first season (all that is currently available on Netflix) is only 6 episodes, it took me over a week to get through it all. That’s a long time for a man who gets through a full season of nearly every Netflix series I’ve watched (From House of Cards to Daredevil to Stranger Things) in 5 days. But getting through The Get Down was more difficult than I expected.
The Get Down follows the lives of Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero, Mylene Cruz, Shaolin Fantastic and their various friends and acquaintances as they each pursue their own musical dreams. Zeke (Justice Smith) is a hesitant poet who, as shown by his present day narration, becomes a major rap legend. Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) is the daughter of a church pastor with ambitions of becoming a disco superstar. And Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) is obsessed with proving himself to Grandmaster Flash so he’ll teach him to become a DJ. Other memorable turns include Jaden Smith as Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling, a creative minded graffiti artist, and Jimmy Smits as Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, a local Bronx politician with dreams of transforming his neighborhood.But the central story here is
But the central story here is of the partnership Zeke, his friends, and Shaolin Fantastic make in forming The Get Down Crew, a dynamic rap group that centers on Zeke’s lyricism and Shaolin’s DJing. They practice and hone their craft in between seeking love, dabbling in the drug trade, dealing with less than ideal domestic situations. That setup alone is amazing and I was anxious for how much black brilliance was bound to cross my screen. But then I found myself trudging through the first two episodes.
The material was dense. The first episode is more like a movie, running a full 93 minutes long , and much more is done in the area of character development than actual storytelling. Also, I was left to figure out the “weirdness” of the show, fusing martial arts with the 70’s and early hip hop, with no direction. I was utterly lost for long stretches, and I almost gave up.
Still, I was determined to see how these seeds would grow and blossom. And once you really get into the show, there are for more merits than shortcomings. While those early episodes were short on action and story progression, Justice Smith’s astonishing acting chops are on full display, and the show’s primary success is in walking through the events of his life. His burgeoning bond with The Get Down Crew. His undying affection for Mylene. His uncanny affinity for writing. His frequent tears. It was addictive and amazing. And a story about hip hop’s emergence out of the disco era that uses a piano playing black and Puerto Rican teenager from the Bronx as its fulcrum is a lot to take in.
But it works.
The Get Down transcends the era to which it hearkens back to because not a single character on the show is painted as monochromatic. Instead, the series thrives off of humanity, from religion to passion to sexual identity to artistic expression to ambition to love to pure joy. And because of this, the storytelling doesn’t just rest on emulating the 70’s. It speaks to the human condition.
One of the more awe inspiring moments arises when Zeke’s teacher pushes him to become more invested in his own future. She can see his potential and the powerful writing, but he opts to keep these things hidden from his peers. After much prodding about why he wouldn’t read a poem that he wrote in front of the class, he starts to recite it just to her, without needing his pages to remember any of it. The poem, outlining the loss of both of his parents and his internal pain, is astonishingly written and delivered flawlessly in a way that makes the world stop for a moment. And it is instances like these that capture the brilliance of this show. Underneath silly adolescent antics and the singular goal of attaining one’s dreams, the characters have texture and layers, an important construct that is often not built into minority roles.
And once you’re halfway into the series, it fires on all cylinders. There is an undeniable mysticism to the show, turning hip-hop, adolescence, and friendships into spiritual actors. Elements from legendary Kung Fu films are infused into the quest to achieve hip hop greatness. The backdrop of the Bronx becomes a character itself as political players fight to mold it under their own ideals. There are rap battles, shootouts, musical numbers, and even a foray into the growing LGBT scene. And underneath it all, the entire production is animated by the feeling of living in those moments just before realizing your dream. There are a lot of threads to trace and a multitude of characters to service, but somehow, The Get Down does it all in polyester pants, afros, and Adidas.
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