It is well established fact by historians and those that were there that 1970’s New York City was no fairy tale. Yet, that is what Netflix’s newest series, “The Get Down,” is attempting to portray.
In 1975, New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy with more than $11 million in debt. Unable to even cover basic operating expenses, the city turned into a crime ridden environment. The police were taking bribes, gangs fought over burned-out apartment lots in the South Bronx and a gunshot could mean certain death when emergency services took drastic cuts to their funding.
The funniest paradox of the collective memory of 1970s New York City is how almost everyone,especially those who weren’t actually there, loves to look back at it with a rose-colored lens. They see the rose that grew out of the blood-stained concrete. The invention of hip-hop, the explosion of graffiti, punk rock and anything else that spawned from struggle that many of us will never experience.
And this feishization and romanticization of the 1970s is exactly what spawned “The Get Down,” Netflix’s latest addition to its streaming television empire that creates cult-following hits like “Orange is The New Black” and complete garbage like “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“The Get Down” is directed by none other than Baz Luhrmann, a director known for making bold moves with his works. Including everything from placing original Shakespearean dialogue onto a modern gangster love story in “Romeo + Juliet” to adapting a work of great literature as a vehicle for over-the-top visions of the Roaring Twenties in “The Great Gatsby.” “The Get Down” falls in line with Luhrmann’s style. He serves up a nice looking dish that that unfortunately doesn’t go down the stomach well.
Luhrmann’s idea for “The Get Down” is one that he has worked on for a decade and what is clear from the get-go is that authenticity was key in Luhrmann’s vision. Key figures from the period such as Grandmaster Flash, Ed Koch, and Kool Herc are part of the story. The clothing is fresh and even small details, from street signs to bottles of malt liquor, are true to the period. I was surprised to even see how an actual church that is on West Tremont and Jerome Avenue right next to the elevated 4 train line in the Bronx was used for the show. “The Get Down” does an amazing job capturing the beauty of one of the most underserved boroughs of New York City and get’s a New Yorker’s stamp of approval.
And Luhrmann’s strive for authenticity pays off with beautifully filmed landscapes of abandoned lots, train yards and seedy spots that capture what New York in the 1970’s was all about. He didn’t even make the common mistake seen in cinema production of just putting random graffiti over the walls, but did it in the style of the period. Luhrmann really takes viewers to early hip-hop parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, The Writers Bench at 149th St. and other spots that true hip-hop lovers would die to see in person. “The Get Down” looks great and the trailers and screen stills promise a honest portrayal of one of the most tumultuous times in New York’s colorful history.
But what cuts into the authenticity and recreated beauty of “The Get Down” is how the creators undermined other vital aspects of the show and overemphasized on others. The biggest problem is how the show steers away from keeping it real and instead goes into the fantastical and absurd.
Yes, the show is supposed to be a mythical fairytale of sorts. A story about two kids from the Bronx rising up from the ghetto through music. The male lead Ezekiel, played by Justice Smith, does this through hip-hop. While the female lead Mylene, played by newcomer Herizen F. Guardiola, strives to become the next big Disco queen. They run through New York City dealing with rival hip-hop crews, gangsters, kingpins, record businessman and even corrupt politicians. It is very much like a mythical tale with new challenges and characters at every turn.
The idea sounds great on paper but watching the fantasy-like elements unfold on screen creates hits and misses. Scenes where characters like DJ Shaolin Fantastic run at superhuman speeds doing backflips over cars and wielding a katana feel over the top and take away from the realism the show. And it is cringey to see how the show made real DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash larger than life characters that rule their own “kingdoms.”
Yet other times it creates some great moments. One of my favorite moments was how the show presented the 1977 New York City blackout, a monumental moment in the history of hip-hop due to how much DJ equipment was boosted on that night. Archival footage has given people a good idea of what the blackout was like but “The Get Down “ recreates the night and shows numerous stories that occur in the chaotic moment. It begins with Ezekiel and his friends staring into the East River and all of a sudden the city lights shut off. The show then shows the experiences of three characters throughout the city during the blackout, the most enthralling being Ezekiel participating in a raid on a night club to get some DJ equipment. It is a moment in the show that feels unreal but is still grounded in reality.
But even with some great moments throughout another major snag is that the show has some poorly written music. For a show where the entire plot is based on the characters trying to become successful musicians, it makes it hard to believe in the characters if the music sounds horrible. Many of the rap songs written feel genuine to the time but some are just so bad it almost seems like a late night comedy sketch. The song that propels Mylene to disco fame “Set Me Free,” doesn’t just sound incredibly corny, especially in relation to the plot, but it also doesn’t sound like a genuine disco song. It is hilarious how the main character Ezekiel opens “The Get Down” in 1996 at Madison Square Garden as a successful rapper yet has the worst flow I’ve ever heard a fictional rapper spit. No offense Nas, who is an executive producer of the show, but it is hard to not turn off my TV after hearing Ezekiel explain what happened in the last episode of the Get Down with the worst bars ever written.
“The Get Down” is not a complete let down. It certainly has great moments like the Blackout episode or when Ezekiel faces off against Kool Herc’s rap crew in the last episode and delivers some solid music and excitement to the show. But these moments come and go and the most of the episodes are filled with soap opera-like scenes of drama or cheesy subplots.
Overall, “The Get Down” does a good job in trying to capture and recreate what New York City was like in the 1970s visually. But the “The Get Down”’ fails to bring that same quality to the show itself with a shoddy and poorly written story that tries so hard to capture what can only be seen through a rose colored camera lens.