“The Get Down” is the Birth of Hip-Hop Done Right

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Is it just me, or has Puma stock gone up quite a bit?

After receiving cosigns from social media heiress Kylie Jenner, pop icon Rihanna and hyperactive rap duo Rae Sremmurd, getting a pair of Puma shoes has gone from fairly simple to a bit of a process. Don’t even get me started on trying to get a pair of RiRi’s creepers, because that’s a whole other story and a whole other tax bracket. But still, the image of a fresh pair of Puma Suedes is ingrained in the culture, way back to your father’s adolescence and even beyond. For many, the love of a clean set began with a glance at someone else’s or hearing of somebody who had stacks of pairs – which is exactly what kicks off the adventure in Netflix’s newest original series, The Get Down.

Following a ragtag group of teenagers during 1977 in the South Bronx, The Get Down can be described as a saga of the birth of sub-genres, hip-hop, disco and punk, and how each teen discovers their love for these new art forms. Executively produced by Baz Luhrmann, whose no stranger to musical expressiveness, and budgeted at $120 million, this series gathers an impressive cast of up and comers as well as hefty vets to fill the roles of the multicultural characters. Coming off the heels of the impressively charming Dope, Shameik Moore plays Shaolin Fantastic, a thrill-seeking errand boy of the streets, seeking a new outlet as a pupil to Grandmaster Flash. Justice Smith takes the lead of the series as Zeke, forming a bond with Moore’s character and striking it out as an emcee. Across the way is Herizen F. Guardiola, love interest to Zeke and tenacious singer seeking a way into the world of disco. Skylan Brooks, T.J Brown Jr. and Jaden Smith play the Kipling brothers, as they tag along with Shaolin and Zeke, helping them form a band in this new landscape of music. Rounding out the cast are veteran actors Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito, playing brothers Papa Fuerte and Pastor Ramon, each on the opposing sides of the fence when it comes to saving the neighborhood.

First off, Baz Luhrmann knows how to create distinct, dazzling worlds within his films, and The Get Down is no exception. The show feels well set within 1977 NYC, from the production values of replicating the look of the city, to the different styles of dress and environments that the characters embody and go through. You can see it in the many afros and sideburns that come across the screen, the many pairs of Pumas that stomp across the sidewalk and the many Buicks that slide down the street. You hear it in the language of the characters, intermixed Spanish and English, slang that only kids from that time and place would know, references to Star Wars and Kung-fu flicks at the dollar theater. Each new sub-culture or setting that is introduced has a look to it that separates it from what you’ve seen before, though it’s never so jarring that it takes you out of place. One of the coolest elements of the show is the chopping of actual footage from that era into the episodes, helping sew together a narrative or a real world event into the happenings of our heroes, such as the NYC blackout of ‘77 or the mayoral race between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo.

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Another highlight of the series is the cohesion and scales of relationships with all of the cast. Like Netflix’s other hit series, Stranger Things, the younger section of the cast is electric, delivering lines and actions very realistically and with passion. Justice Smith and Shameik Moore balance each other very well, the former being a love-struck poet trying to make a way and the latter being an errand boy for one of South Bronx’s biggest pushers as he tries to become a DJ. All the Kipling brothers prove to help support the storyline, as well as serve as the voices of reason and exploration. Jaden Smith is honestly playing Jaden Smith, in a role that feels extremely close to what Jaden may have been like back in those days and is a nice surprise. Herizen F. Guardiola plays Mylene, bringing forth an enigmatic and morally just totem to the crazy world of disco. The vets Smits and Esposito do what they know how to do and carry all of their scenes impressively. As each episode passes you notice a very natural progression in each character, showing how well acted and focused each actor and actress came to the project.

The music in this story is another plus for the series, a mixing pot of funkadelic disco vibes and the early steps of hip-hop, as well as some later ones. There’s never a moment where the actors performing the verses, singing the songs or scratching the records felt forced, which assists the story as it goes on and keeps you enthralled when legends like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc come on the screen. There’s a very West Side Story feel to the show, with each dance number or battle showcasing that patented bombastic flash and hyper kinetic editing that Luhrmann is known for. The season ends with an exhilarating battle between crews and DJ’s, a fight for the South Bronx and the keys into musical kingdoms, and it is worth the wait.

However, before you can get into the great character dynamics and interesting journeys that the series holds, you have to slog through the season opener, an hour and a half melodramatic and confusingly edited mess. The pilot takes elements of West Side Story, Almost Famous, American Gangster and every young adult summer of discovery trope and tosses them into a blender and hits mix. The result is a jarring mix of tone and substance, which is exemplified by the headache inducing number of cuts. This feeling of the story being all over the place remains for the first three episodes before finding its flow, which definitely will turn people off when the season is only six episodes.

The birth of hip-hop is always a story that will be examined, replicated and shown to each new generation, as it should. The Get Down captures that story as well the grit, style and emotions of the era down to a t. Boasting well-put together musical sequences and some impressive young casting, The Get Down struggles to get out of tropes and find its footing following an overly long pilot episode but once it gets going it doesn’t disappoint.

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