The Bronx is burning in the introductory episodes of The Get Down, Netflix’s new series that presents as urban-cinematic fable the genesis of rap. The cluttered, over-caffeinated 90-minute pilot, directed by creator and executive producer Baz Luhrmann, takes place in the summer of 1977, when a serial killer terrorized New York, a blackout turned the city against itself and the Bronx — widely acknowledged as the birthplace of hip hop — persisted in bursting into flames. From that heat and chaos, The Get Down suggests, was forged a new era of music, a marriage of style and flow as urgent and vital as a fresh heartbeat.
Rather than a promising herald, Luhrmann’s pilot is the thing The Get Down must work to overcome, something that the creators seem to recognize in the more focused later episodes. Frenetic instead of exciting and bizarre where it might have been successfully weird, the series’ first episode runs wild, a hash of jarring tonal shifts, woeful over-direction and an unwieldy mix of characters. Luhrmann is at pains to lay out the series’ epic narrative, thematic scope and aesthetic ambitions; a keen sense of that pain overwhelms viewers' chances of finding pleasure, much less coherence, in his vision.
At the center of that vision is the plight of Ezekiel “Books” Figuero (Justice Smith), a biracial teenage orphan with a passion for poetry and for a Puerto Rican named Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). Mylene’s desire to become the next Donna Summer separates her from Zeke, as does the will of her repressive pastor father (Giancarlo Esposito). Though he accompanies her well on the piano, Zeke lacks her ambition, her fire to perform: Mylene can’t see him as a partner in escaping the Bronx. The tension between the young couple is the series’ primary metaphor for its depiction of the end of disco, the rise of rap and a relationship between the two genres that is more symbiotic than it might first appear.
Zeke’s savior appears in the form of Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a young hustler and notorious graffiti artist with some low-down connections. When he’s not servicing local gang boss Fat Annie and her frightening son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Shao apprentices at the elbow of Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) himself, at this early date a turntable maestro turning out the neighborhood at regular “get-down” shows (the real Grandmaster Flash is credited as a producer, as are Nas and hip-hop historian Nelson George). Following an extremely convoluted subplot involving a purloined disco record, Zeke and Shao cross paths, and a hip-hop pact forms: Shao will learn to DJ, Zeke will rise from street poet to MC and together they’ll rule the borough and beyond.
“True as the night turns black, this ain’t no fairy tale,” Zeke raps in the second episode. But the world of The Get Down is one in which the heroes triumph, the kids are all right and the right party can change your life. It’s a novel way to tell the story of a musical genre traditionally wrought through (often dark) founding myths. It’s also a way to go really, exceptionally wrong, as The Get Down pilot frequently does. An excess of kitsch and corny dialogue upsets the show’s already perilous balance of high-toned allegory and street credibility. The second and third episodes relax into more intuitive pacing, and a more thoughtful approach to character, leading not with flash and labored set pieces but the psyches and relationships that will ultimately hold the show together.
Superlative casting choices and performances offset some of the dodgiest moments (I had to cover my eyes during a Grease-style dance-off), and in better scenes (notably a vivid, technical sequence in which Shao and co. struggle to master a basic principle of DJ knowledge) seem to push the show toward its own ends. With his wide-set eyes, slight frame and expressive mouth, Smith is a watchful, anchoring presence, as convincing in lovesick tears as he is spitting rhymes for a crowd. Jaden Smith and Skylan Brooks are sensitive and funny in their smaller roles as members of Zeke’s crew. A powerful singer and striking presence, Guardiola has a more difficult and limiting role as ingénue; her opportunities to layer Mylene with intelligence are fewer, but satisfying when they occur. Jimmy Smits is also effective as benevolent ward boss (and Mylene’s uncle) ‘Papa Fuerte’ Cruz, a political operative with good intentions and questionable means.
Across the first three episodes, The Get Down’s hip-hop coming-of-age musical melodrama appears to wrestle its own sprawl into submission. Magnetic, then unwatchable, then magnetic again, the show’s breakout energy and will to please cannot be denied. Despite conjuring a version of the Bronx that exists nowhere outside a set designer’s fever dream, the show finds a persuasive sense of place and time in bringing the passions of its characters to pulsing, rhythmic life.