Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'The Get Down'

Netflix will drop the first six episodes of its new original drama series The Get Down on Friday, August 12 at 12:01am P.T. The drama stars Justice Smith, Shameik Moore, Herizen Guardiola, Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jaden Smith, Mamoudou Athie, Giancarlo Esposito and Jimmy Smits.

Read on for my thoughts on the musical period drama after screening all six episodes.

Netflix's The Get Down is the third new drama set in the music industry from an Oscar-winning filmmaker to debut in 2016. It comes on the heels of HBO's Vinyl (from Martin Scorsese) and Showtime's Roadies (from Cameron Crowe). The premium cable networks have failed spectacularly in trying to cover this material. If Netflix can succeed in this genre, it can fulfill its ambition of being the new cultural hub for quality television. Of course, it seems like that achievement has already happened. Netflix is producing more original series than any other network - broadcast, cable or streaming. It's spending more money than any other network - broadcast, cable or streaming. It has a business strategy that is so different than anyone else. This one show won't turn the tides of critical opinion in any significant way. It's just significant to note how familiar this concept has been as of late amongst multiple networks while the question persists of whether or not anyone can get it right.

The Get Down certainly has a strange marriage between creator and content. Baz Luhrmann is a very acquired taste as a filmmaker. Audiences either love or hurt his work. There really is no middle ground. He goes big, grand and over-the-top on glitz and glam moments. It's a style that can work remarkably well with the correct content but go horribly awry with the wrong story. Meanwhile, The Get Down is the story of 1970s New York City. A time when the city was in disarray and crumbling fast. Crime was higher than it has ever been and the public felt like the entire system was falling apart. During this incredibly depressing and violent time, hip hop emerged out of disco as a new style of music. This show centers on one group of friends as they learn how to spin records and use their words to actually say something about the depressing state of their city. Again, that doesn't seem like a story Luhrmann would be particularly good at telling. It's a dark and gritty premise that may be better suited to a Spike Lee or some other filmmaker like that.

Reaction to the series will largely depend on how you feel about the extended premiere. Similar to Scorsese and Crowe, Luhrmann takes the director's chair for the first episode of the series. It plays more like a mini-movie instead of the first episode of a new TV show. It's a series he has been committed to telling for a long time now. But like Scorsese, Luhrmann's influence leaves after that first episode and it's up to the other directors to find consistency. On Vinyl, Scorsese delivered a two-hour pilot that was big and expansive but left no indication of what the series would be. Once the episodic directors came in, it was clear that it was just a boring, run-of-the-mill cable drama. Nothing special about it. Meanwhile, Crowe was more reluctant to let go of creative control of Roadies. He directed the first three episodes of the Showtime series. But that meant the show failed to find any long-lasting consistency in those early episodes and probably turned off many viewers in the process. The Get Down premiere is very much something directed by Baz Luhrmann. If you like the first episode, then you'll probably be disappointed by the next five pulling things back to be more steady. If you dislike the first episode for being too outrageous and cliche, then the next five episodes create a show with nuance without losing any of the fun.

That first episode certainly is problematic. When watching it, I had a lot of fun. Despite being 92 minutes in length, it felt like it had a strong sense of story and direction. But again, there are some very problematic moments where you question why any filmmaker in 2016 would do such a thing. It truly is puzzling. And yet, Luhrmann brings this world alive in quite an unexpected way. It never shies away from the dark grittiness of this world and time frame. The series uses real-life footage and events to bring a sense of place and despair to the proceedings. But the series itself is one of hope. One where characters are able to pursue their dreams no matter how silly or outrageous they mean seem. Sure, some of the conflict along the way is pretty non-sensical and just plain awful. There's a music producer with a drug addiction who feels like he just walked off the Vinyl set. But the core foundation of the main characters is very strong and becomes very moving by the end of the six episodes. Yes, it can oftentimes be a slog to get through. I definitely let out a cheer upon realizing the fifth episode was only 52 minutes long. Most of these episodes are padded with inconsistent stories and ideas. But that also showcases just how ambitious this whole series is. It struggles to truly pay that off across six episodes. And yet, it sure makes for a fun and enjoyable ride when the moments finally do land well.

Perhaps more important than anything else though, series lead Justice Smith is a breakout star. He pops from the moment he first appears on the screen. Whenever he's the focus of any particular moment, the show perks up exceptionally - even if the story itself is a little lame and weirdly plotted. More recognizable names like Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito, Daveed Diggs and Jaden Smith give legitimacy to the project beyond the Baz Luhrmann appeal. But their characters aren't the reason why the show becomes so special and fun to watch. Even if the show fails to gain any traction, you can expect to see a lot of great things from Smith in the future. That's just how good he is. It's a remarkable find for the show and Luhrmann. He plays Ezekiel Figuero, a half black-half Puerto Rican young man in the Bronx whose parents have both been killed by violence. He's a smart guy whose voice could become influential if he just takes ahold of the opportunities presented to him. His future is up for grabs between the lyric stylings of hip hop and the respect and class of political action. He finds himself pulled into so many different worlds. Everyone is vying for his attention and commitment. These opportunities present ways for him to escape this world. But it's ultimately the classic struggle of accepting the familiar or taking a risk that may not pan out to anything. It's a pretty gripping character arc over the six episodes.

The show's other two leads are the ones propping up this internal conflict within Ezekiel. Herizen Guardiola is another strong casting find for the series. She plays Mylene Cruz, a girl from the neighborhood determined to escape her religious family for a career as a disco singer. She has the connections to make that happen. She's also trapped in a complicated love dynamic with Ezekiel because she doesn't want anything to pull her back from chasing her dreams of leaving the Bronx for fame. She doesn't understand the hip hop culture rising in her city and wants Ezekiel to use his smarts for real change. Change that can open doors for him elsewhere so that he can leave too. All of that contrasts with Shameik Moore's character, Shaolin Fantastic. A street kid who funds his musical ambitions with drug money. The gang aspects of the show really aren't that great. They just seem a little too ridiculous to feel natural in this incredibly dark world. And yet, the connection Shaolin and Ezekiel form is special. Shaolin introduces the show to the world of the get down. A place where the beat is unlike anything previously done in music. An art form where people can use their words to make bold statements about their lives. It's an exhilarating rush for Ezekiel. He is a wordsmith able to well articulate his thoughts in any given situation. He just has to find the courage to become a leader and a voice for his people. Shaolin and Mylene just have differing ideas of how he can do that.

It should come as no surprise that the musical stylings and performances of the show are when the episodes truly come alive. To its benefit, The Get Down has Grandmaster Flash and Nas as executive producers to help bring authenticity to this world. Flash is even a prominent character on the show as the man responsible for teaching the young leads the rules of hip hop. Sure, it's a characterization that lifts him up as this almost mystical sensei-type. But it's also very effective in infusing the show with real-life energy and style. It's just fun seeing how inventive the show can get with its musical moments - from the need to change a church hymn to an audition for a music producer to the over-the-top stylings of a gay nightclub to the cast pulling a disco break to win a dance competition. That's when the show truly comes alive. It lags when those moments aren't prominent in the episodes. It's been widely reported that the show has had so much production difficulties. It's not surprising that a Baz Luhrmann project has gone over schedule and over budget. But with $120 million dollars invested in The Get Down, the final product needs to be special and distinctive. These opening episodes suggest greatness is possible. But the show only really achieves that when just going all out in song. And yet, the sixth episode ends on such a strong note that it makes the whole journey worth it while building excitement for the next batch of episodes.