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The Grandmaster’s Flash

Baz Luhrmann's Netflix series ‘The Get Down’ is an uneven but exuberant look at the birth of hip-hop

In 1977, the end of the world is nigh, but the teens in The Get Down (Netflix) are too busy dancing and dreaming to notice. Their youthful blindness — their self-absorption, an adult might chide — is on their side. Bronx high-schoolers Zeke (Justice Smith) and Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) couldn’t recognize the signs of the apocalypse — coke-fueled turf wars waged with Kalashnikovs, the impending election of neoliberal mayor Ed Koch (Frank Wood) — because their burning, crumbling, lightless city is all they’ve ever known. But they’ve seen across the Harlem River into Manhattan. They know enough to want more.

Music is one of the least probable escape hatches out of poverty, but as we see in the 1996-set opening shot of The Get Down, Zeke eventually rhymes his way into stadium stardom. The fate of his teenage sweetheart, a preacher’s daughter who embarks on a disco career just as the baroque genre is about to excess its way into the grave, remains unknown. Created by Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, the musical drama follows Mylene, Zeke, and his DJ/rap group during hip-hop’s early days, spinning a creation myth that marries history with romance, legend with politics, crime with optimism, and songs of the era with new beats from Nas. Like most of Luhrmann’s projects, it’s narratively scruffy (to be generous). But at its best, it’s pure exuberance.

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Six messy, brassy, impassioned episodes will drop on Friday, August 12, with the remaining half-dozen installments of the first season landing next year. (The Get Down’s notorious production delays have earned it the nickname “The Shut Down” behind the scenes.) Luhrmann directs the bizarre 90-minute pilot, which reintroduces many of the Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby director’s favorite tropes: young (probably doomed) love, a near fetishization of period details, restless musical mash-ups, aggressively spirited dance sequences, and flurries and explosions of seemingly whatever’s around. Unique to the first episode is Zeke’s grating soppiness, suggestions of the supernatural (which fail to pan out), and a quasi-Tarantino-esque tendency toward pastiche. When Zeke encounters his future musical partner, the Bruce Lee–worshipping, aspiring DJ Shaolin (Shameik Moore), the cross-genre soundtrack switches over to flutes and gongs. Shaolin’s fake martial-arts moves — he’s a low-level hustler who knows some Asian-seeming mumbo-jumbo is likely to scare away some of the rowdies in his ’hood — are accompanied by whooshing sound effects straight out of a ’70s B-flick.

Shaolin’s Orientalism is a clever, authentic detail — one proposed, in fact, by father of hip-hop Grandmaster Flash, who serves as an adviser and is played by Mamoudou Athie here — if also somewhat annoying to this Asian-American viewer, who could’ve done without being reminded of all the woo-woo karate and kung-fu appropriation/reinterpretation of that decade. The verbally gifted Zeke ends up stuck between two worlds, represented by the relatively privileged Mylene (whose uncle, played by Jimmy Smits, can call a meeting with Koch and fork over $40,000 in an afternoon so she can record a demo) and the seemingly family-less Shaolin (who gets by as a male hooker to a local queenpin and loses his few possessions to a spate of financially driven arson jobs). But it’s Shaolin who gradually emerges as the series’ most fascinating character, at least in the first six hours. Lonely, traumatized, misogynistic, and grimly practical, he’s so obsessed with furthering his musical career that he can’t fuck unless there’s a song with a rhythm he can pump to playing in the background. He’d love to be feared, but he loses a fight to Zeke during one of their first encounters when the kid bites his finger.

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Like raw dough, The Get Down gets wobblier as it expands, which it continues to do beyond conventional TV storytelling. Largely a princess to be saved by men around her (and easily the least developed among the major characters), Mylene’s story includes her repressive parents (Giancarlo Esposito and Zabryna Guevara), her politically ambitious uncle, and her haphazard mentorship with her has-been addict producer (Kevin Corrigan, soulful as always). Gangs clutter the Bronx streets like litter, fighting over scraps through children with revolvers — a crowded state of affairs that could easily have been its own show. And then there are the three other members of Zeke and Shao’s group — preternaturally talented munchkins whose ability to make moral choices are taken from them soon enough.

The distinctions between Zeke’s friends remind us why representation matters. The Get Down isn’t just the rare show that centers on characters who are black and/or Latino and poor, but also revels in the full spectrum of fragile boyhood they inhabit. Jaden Smith’s Dizzee, for example, is exactly the kind of black kid we seldom see on TV but definitely exists: the African-American ethereal hippie, the Little Prince in l’il graffito form. (His nom de spray can is “Rumi,” in another nod to intercultural influences.) Along with real-life events like the two-day, citywide blackout of ’77 and the inclusion of statistics like New York City suffering the highest unemployment rate in America at the time, Luhrmann and his writers don’t shy away from the realities of their characters’ existence: the casual homophobia and violence against women, PTSD after violent encounters, the steep barriers keeping the poor and working class “in their place,” and the learned hopelessness (Zeke’s African-American teacher calls it “slave mentality”) about ever getting out.

While Koch vows to permanently lock up any third-time graffiti offender, seeing only vandalism, Zeke sees signs of community and uplift, and helps others see them that way too. It’s that shared creativity — sometimes deliberate and rehearsed, sometimes spontaneous and fleeting — that The Get Down celebrates with style and verve. Clarence remodels himself as Cadillac, Francisco Cruz flexes his muscles as Papa Fuerte, and Joseph Saddler rides off into the sunset as Grandmaster Flash. Its characters feel trapped in the Bronx, but they don’t have to be anybody they don’t want to be.