There are two sides to Netflix’s musical drama The Get Down. First, it presents an idealistic view of young people and their path to stardom.
Teenager Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith) plays the piano for Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola) in church. He confesses his love for her and she turns him down. Mylene, who has dreams of becoming a big-time singer, fears that being with Ezekiel will just hold her back.
Thanks to her influential uncle Papa Fuerte’s (Jimmy Smits) connections, Mylene meets a record producer and it looks like she might have a shot at becoming the next big thing.
Ezekiel, on the other hand, turns his frustrations to poetry and then, with the help of aspiring deejay Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), seems on the path to becoming a hip-hop superstar.
The idealism stops here, which is when the show presents its other side: the reality of being young, restless and part of a marginalised community in Brooklyn in 1977, where despicable behaviour is often needed to keep those dreams alive.
Mylene’s ruthless uncle basically blackmails a drug-addicted record producer into getting his niece’s single played on the radio, while Shaolin – or Shao as his friends call him – turns to drugs, sex and violence as the means to get himself a turntable. His risky business helps fuel the ambitions of Ezekiel, Dizzee (Jaden Smith), Ra-ra (Skylan Brooks) and Boo-Boo (T.J. Brown Jr), who comprise up-and-coming hip-hop crew The Fantastic Four Plus One. The show may sound dark and depressing on paper but The Get Down will not make viewers feel like crying their eyes out thanks to its fast pace and vibrant, colourful setting.
This musical drama created by Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis also has enough charm, humour and twists to keep viewers engrossed. We see The Fantastic Four Plus One learn the art of turntabling from revered deejay Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie). He appears like a wise kung fu master and refers to his protege Shao as “Grasshopper”. You’ll never look at a purple crayon the same way again after the boys learn its secret.
Soaring soulful numbers courtesy of Mylene and fantastic rap performances from The Fantastic Four Plus One also add to the series’ appeal.
Look out for Ezekiel’s emotional delivery of a poem about the death of his mother in the first episode. There’s also stunning visual art in the form of graffiti done by Shao and Dizzee.
These are all examples of how The Get Down shows its characters using art as a medium to forget about growing pains and the harsh reality of living in an economically-challenged urban area.
However, the show can also get lost in its own frenzy.
The first episode Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope For A Treasure is directed by Luhrman and the filmmaker (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby) employs his trademark over-the-top visual style, fast cuts and extreme closeups quite frequently.
Besides the love story of Ezekiel and Mylene, there is also social commentary on class, race and politics.
Oh, and did we mention gangsters? While Papa Fuerte makes deals with politicians to deliver votes from the community, he’s also in cahoots with gangsters who burn down buildings for insurance money. Ezekiel also tries to save Mylene from flamboyant gangster Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the song of a drug lord, in a disco dance-off.
Oh, Shao is also sleeping with another drug lord, Fat Annie (Lillias White), for money. And let’s not even talk about how Ezekiel and Shao are plotting to steal from Cadillac.
Having so many different characters and scandalous telenovela-like developments, coupled with MTV-style delivery, may turn some viewers off.
But if you are patient enough to wade through all the frenzy, then The Get Down is a rewarding experience with many layers to its simple, timeless story about a pair of star-crossed lovers.
If you’re a hopeless romantic like Ezekiel, you can surely relate to his heartache, while dreamers can relate to the ambitious Mylene, who wants to leave Brooklyn for the bright lights of New York City. Despite his questionable methods, Papa Fuerte is only doing what he can to ensure his community gets affordable housing. And Shao, just like everyone else, has the stars in his eyes.
Feel the music, experience the colours and get lost in The Get Down’s beautiful mess.
All six episodes of The Get Down are available on Netflix.