Friday, August 12, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Get Down' - Zeke Follows Mylene to a Club to Prove His Love in 'Where There is Ruin, There is Hope for a Treasure'

Netflix's The Get Down - Episode 1.01 "Where There is Ruin, There is Hope for a Treasure"

Zeke's resolve to woo Mylene sends him into a dizzying, dangerous nightclub scene, where he crosses paths with a nimble local legend.

Over the past few years, the television industry has pushed the limits of running times. Things no longer have to start and end within an hour. That's still the standard for many channels. But there is an increasing number of shows that have the ability to run for as long as they can. FX has always given its creators that freedom - to the detriment of some and the benefit of others. USA's Mr. Robot hasn't delivered an episode under an hour yet this year. But being able to tell a story for as long as possible doesn't mean that one should do it. Time is very precious - especially in an environment with over 400 original shows vying for attention. 90 minutes is a huge ask for anyone willing to sample a new series. A premiere like that needs to justify itself and make itself worthy for the audience. Baz Luhrmann set out to produce a mini-movie to start off his new Netflix series, The Get Down. This premiere runs 92 minutes long. In those minutes, the stories vary wildly in tone and consistency. Effects are simultaneously powerful and increasingly silly. And yet, there's enough raw energy here to suggest that great things can come from this show and its cast of characters.

It may seem like an odd pairing of creator and material. Baz Luhrmann is known for being a director of glitz and glam. He's someone who loves the excess. He loves going over-the-top and just being as bold and grand as possible. It's a style he has perfected in his movies even though that largely makes him a hit-or-miss creative auspice. Conversely, The Get Down is set in 1970s New York City. It's a time when the city was falling apart and on the brink of destruction. From the ashes of the despair, hip hop was born and revolutionized the music industry. But the series is still set in the dark and gritty aspects of the time. It's a harsh and violent landscape where every single person in the Bronx deals with hardships and struggles every single day. Where the most any one person could aspire to was not getting shot or working at the local store for a couple of years. That doesn't inherently seem like material that Luhrmann could do justice. It's from that pairing though that the show presents an unexpected twist on the story. This pilot doesn't shy away from just how devastating and destructive this time was. But it focuses on the hopefulness of these characters. The fun, excitement, joy and love they fill as they are just doing their best to survive. That is a very exciting foundation to build the show upon.

Of course, Luhrmann does a number of really silly things through this extended premiere. Most of that comes whenever Shaolin Fantastic is on the screen. It's clear that Luhrmann was inspired by and paying homage to the types of cheesy ninja movies from the 1970s. But hearing those exaggerated sound effects when Shaolin is running parkour throughout the city is increasingly bothersome and really hilarious. It's played earnestly but the unintended consequence is laughter. That breaks down the connection the audience is suppose to form with Shaolin over the course of the premiere. He is built up as this big mystery. Someone who is a legend in the Bronx because he's willing to go deep into gang territory to tag walls with his empowering messages. He's a skilled graffiti artist. But when he actually shows up onscreen, graffiti is his defining action of the past and not of his future. After all that build up, he's willing to walk away from all of that because he has aspirations to be a great DJ - like his mentor Grandmaster Flash. That's the solid foundation for an interesting character. But most of that is going to play out in future episodes. In the premiere, he's too busy selling drugs or running away from gang members.

Plus, the gang members running the streets of Bronx here are incredibly silly. It's hard to take anything that happens in those sequences all that seriously. The stakes just don't feel all that high despite the time period the show is set in. It's as if Luhrmann had just watched West Side Story and thought that's what gangs are like. It's another laughable element. Yes, it is thrilling to watch Shaolin jumping from one building to another one on fire to escape them. But again, it's a sequence punctuated by weird stylistic choices both visual and musical. The gang elements are going to be important to the overall series as well. The show is setting up many subplots that will affect the protagonists as they try to achieve their dreams. Not much is made of Shaolin selling drugs and being in with the important people of this underworld. Conversely, there is so much importance to Jimmy Smits showing up as Francisco Cruz, a local politician with big dreams and ideas for his neighborhood. It too suffers from a lack of clear connection to the rest of the show. It largely shows just how ambitious the main narrative wants to be. It's a running commentary on an entire city in disarray and not just how that world affected a group of teenagers.

Despite all of these major and erratic issues, the premiere does a number of things wonderfully well too. The epic love story between Ezekiel and Mylene grounds the 92 minutes as they journey through fantastical new worlds. The show is essentially about these two characters walking into strange and new environments in pursuit of their dreams. Mylene is serious about being a singer. It's her sole ambition in life. It's all she wants to do. She won't let anything stand in her way. That includes Zeke. He doesn't have the same drive as she does. She's very hopeful about her singing being able to pull her out of this community. She has plans that extend far beyond the Bronx. She does love Zeke and is swept off of her feet by his big romantic gestures. But it's also so empowering to see her stand up for her dreams and ambitions. Too often in this industry, the female characters have to forget about their goals just in order to prop up the male characters. That doesn't appear to be the case here. Zeke is the one who is heartbroken by love. Mylene ends the premiere in a dark place as well. But it's a story solely centered around her wanting to sing and her old school, religious father wanting nothing to do with it. Plus, the reveal that Francisco Cruz is her uncle could prove very beneficial to tying everything in the series together.

Of course, the male protagonist is still ultimately the main driver of action and story in this opening episode. But in the hands of Justice Smith, that's a captivating journey as well. He is desperate to prove his love to Mylene. He is willing to do whatever it takes to make her his girl. He respects her too much to not say anything about how he really feels. He fully believes he just needs to impress her by winning the dance competition and getting her tape to a music producer. Of course, that proves to be more difficult than it initially seems. It's a journey that bumps him into Shaolin and the world of gangs and drugs. But it's still about that moving moment where Zeke and Mylene are on the dance floor together. Sure, that's not enough to win over her love. Zeke has too many flaws to be a reasonable romantic interest. He doesn't have ambition. He doesn't want to be a leader in his community. He has the skills to do so but none of the courage. All of that starts to change by the end of the premiere. After having his heart broken, Shaolin takes Zeke and his friends to the get down to show them the best time they've ever had in their lives. It truly is magnificent to see Zeke come alive in this new environment. He's out of place at first. He doesn't know how to react to this underground world. But it's also very exciting. He sees how untraditional and weird this environment is. That's enough to build his confidence up and get him to perform. And now, he and the rest of his crew are ready to conquer the world together.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Where There is Ruin, There is Hope for a Treasure" was directed by Baz Luhrmann with story by Baz Luhrmann & Stephen Adly Guirgis and teleplay by Baz Luhrmann, Stephen Adly Guirgis & Seth Zvi Rosenfeld.
  • The energy of the two club scenes is electric. However, that can only cover up so much of the broad, over-the-top acting with Malibu and Cadillac. The girl needing to sleep with a producer to break into the business has become a cliche and boring story. Meanwhile, the DJ who gets way too excited after snorting cocaine has just become so laughably egregious - especially following HBO's Vinyl.
  • The debate between religious values and a signing career could be a very potent storyline throughout the season. Here, it's a little too one-dimensional largely because of Giancarlo Esposito's character just beating up his daughter for sneaking out of the house dressed as a "slut."
  • Zeke's crew of friends will likely be more important as characters than his aunt and her boyfriend who are raising him. But they don't have much in terms of personalities at all throughout the premiere.
  • At first, I didn't recognize Jaden Smith as Dizzee, Zeke's friend who worships Shaolin's graffiti skills. He looks at Shaolin like a god and is overcome with joy by being gifted with all of his tools.
  • Conversely, Mylene's friends essentially disappear after the dancing section of the club scene starts. That proves that the male perspective is going to be more important for the series going forward with Mylene providing the sole female focus.
  • Francisco Cruz is a local businessman who isn't being talked about all that favorably in the news. But the citizens of his community love him because of the good work and opportunities he's providing for them. Plus, he's attaching himself to the current mayor for a promise of a better future that allows his dreams to become a reality. 
  • Zeke's teacher wants him to believe that he can achieve many great things in this world if he puts his mind to it. He doesn't believe that after reading his poem out loud to just her. But by the end of the premiere, he may be coming around to that way of thinking. Though it seems unlikely the teacher will have a major presence this season considering the school year is over and summer has started.
  • The framing device of an older Zeke - played by Hamilton's Daveed Diggs - performing in front of a stadium crowd at the start and close of the episode proves that he will go on to achieve great things. But it could also be very tiring if it becomes a go to element in every episode.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that release their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.