The 2015 Netflix trailer for the Get Down gave us a glimpse of 1970’s New York and the birth of hip hop with the fire and drama you would expect from a Baz Luhrmann production. When the show launched August 12, they managed to deliver on lush cinematography, stunning style and familiar hip hop samples, but well after an hour into the premier, the plot failed to take off until the pilot’s final minutes.
There were many starts and stops that plagued the show’s production leaving many wondering if the Get Down would ever see the light of day. According to Variety, budgets were largely unchecked and multiple showrunners were replaced which slowed production and resulted in an absence of a cohesive narrative voice. In an age of endless viewing options competing for viewers’ attention, Netflix must succeed in capturing fans from the beginning. Sadly, the pilot failed to hook me.
The photographic backgrounds introduced in the early scenes of The Get Down set the table for a visual feast featuring historically accurate accounts of New York that include the arsons, political corruption, dismal public schools, deplorable housing and crime in the city. This rang true, but by the end of the show, the Get Down delivered a shallow, messy meal that somehow left me with heartburn.
The character development asked too much of viewers, expecting them to emotionally invest in the cast too early. I really wished their story lines unfolded organically. Every time a main character was introduced, they explained their backstory within their first 5 lines. The love story between the show’s budding rapper protagonist Zeke and aspiring disco singer Mylene was classic Luhrmann; overly emotional and cloying bordering on desperate. Zeke’s impassioned pleas to get a bouncer to let him into the Studio 54-esque “Les Inferno” was as forced and unbelievable as his tears when Mylene rejected his romantic overtures.
Creatively I also found a few distracting cliches in the otherwise authentically styled wardrobe and makeup. While I thought the signature Warriors-style gang gear worn by Warlords was perfectly on point, their sloppily soot strewn makeup made the Warlords look like they were moonlighting as a backup fire brigade. From a casting perspective I appreciated the diversity of the cast that paired fresh talent with veteran actors; sadly they didn’t get the script writing respect they deserve: Jimmy Smits character is a cross between a Puerto Rican Robin Hood and Tony Montana, and Giancarlo Esposito’s character was overblown. There was a disturbing silence among the older women in the cast-the exception being the lady boss who runs nightclubs, prostitutes, numbers, the local drug cartel and a daycare (blink.blink).
I liked the numerous references to 1970’s Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation films, but every time there was a mention of the red Puma wearing Shaolin Famous I was waiting for Sho Nuff from the Last Dragon to make a surprise cameo. The show’s over-reliance on caricatures diminished the story’s value.
The show felt most at home in the grey space between history and historical fiction, particularly during their use of music and graffiti to move the plot along. Ultimately, the subtle references felt dishonest. In the Get Down, the hunt for the coveted single vinyl copy of a remix by “The Pakoosa” binds the show’s main characters together. The remix is a song by fictional disco diva Misty Holloway could only be found at a lone Jamaican corner store; historically this is a nod to the 1972 crossover hit “Soul Makossa”. As Will Hermes recounts in his book “Love Goes to Buidings of Fire”, Soul Makossa was an unknown import by Manu Dibango from Cameroon. When David Mancuso found it in a West Indian record shop in Brooklyn in 1972 and played it at the Loft, its scarcity and popularity quickly made it one of the most sought after albums by New York DJs. Once radio stations got a hold of the track Soul Makossa was one of the many songs that laid the foundation of disco. Soul Makossa is also one of the most sampled breaks in hip hop history. Old school hip hop heads and audiophiles likely know all this,
but this history is lost on the poor Get Down fans who were dismayed to find out that Misty Holloway doesn’t actually exist… In this instance, poetic license was used to hide some scriptwriting shortcuts.
Putting questions of historical fiction aside, I was willing to sit back and enjoy the ride, especially when I finally got to the infamous party the show was named after (after an hour into the episode). In fact, all of my observations could have been overlooked if the balance of the show was as captivating as the energetic and authentic final two scenes. After the long trudge through the 90-minute premiere, I questioned whether I still wanted to take the musical journey into the birth of hip hop with the Fantastic Four + 1.
9 thoughts on “The Let Down: Netflix’s Ambitious Take on the Birth of Hip Hop Falls Flat”
Very poor review. This article reflects a mindset out of touch with many asthetics of the series. I believe the writer is out of thier element and called sholin fantastic, sholin famous lol. Very indicative the writer has no clue.
“Shoalin” Fantastic, I’ll gladly culp to the use of Famous over Fantastic-let’s agree to call it a typo… Cinematically the show was good, but the character development and writing fell short. Netflix took a gamble and it didn’t pay off. The history of the birth of hip hop deserved more than what it got with this.
The reason why you don’t like the show is because you missed the connection. You can’t relate to that era or the issues going on around that time but I can. I like how the setting was in the south bronx and not brooklyn or queens. I’m from the south burbs of Chicago and believe it or not, shit is getting real rough out here and the bronx street numbers is just like the south burbs. This series reminds me of home.
I hear what you are saying but relating to the SBX isn’t really the point. There are themes that transcend plot that allow people to relate to a story even though that isn’t a shared experience. The show actually did a decent job of showing the economic social and political forces that plagued NYC in the late 70’s and that is a story that resonates w many. As a fan of hip hop the series just didn’t speak to me. Enjoy season 2.
Well, just because it didn’t relate to you, as a hip-hop fan, doesn’t mean it didn’t relate to someone else, as one. If it’s as popular as, I’ve heard it is, Netflix must of done something right. It is a show, carried by music buffs, and actually rappers from that era. Unless you were around during the 70s or you just appreciate the beginnings of hip-hop (which isn’t the 90s) the show won’t speak to you.
Glad you liked it, as many have.
I didn’t. Good storytelling transcends the viewer’s ability to relate to the subject.
I don’t disagree that it does, but I also, personally, saw it as good storytelling, not just relatable.
You covered some good points here. However, Its a show not a documentary. Little known fact, the majority of the youth in BX who pushed this nameless movement were Puerto Rican. From b boy to graffitti art. They were the pioneers. There was no head spinning break dancing in the beginning. Just electric boogie battles. Hence Boogie down Bronx. The South Bronx is/was nothing to glorify, but this show pushes a positive message. And although the truth was a bit stretched, I and others can relate. If you found nothing you can relate to in this series, then this show wasn’t for you or your review. #FallBackWithTheWack Shoalin Famous tho BOL && fantastic four plus one wouldve been an ill name back in the day. Dont be shocked, You just don’t get the culture. Ironic, huh?
LOL that was cute…I don’t remember saying I didn’t relate to a single element of the show. Is that a prerequisite for liking? If so I better cancel some of my favorites.
Anyway, glad the show brought you some joy. When is the next season again?
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