why the critics are wrong about 'the get down'
There’s nothing wrong with embracing the epicness of the show, its lurid color palette, and its sprawling narrative.
Netflix showered a cool $120 million on The Get Down, its sprawling series about the birth of hip-hop in the crumbling Bronx of 1977. And it shows. Those epic reconstructions of NYC streets, the 'fly' threads, the huge cast, the tiniest period details. No cost has been spared. And yet, to its critics, all that cash might as well have been flushed down the drain. Or better yet, spent on the next season of Stranger Things.
The haters are calling The Get Down an almighty let down. "It is wilfully dumb," says the Sunday Times' AA Gill. "[It] smacks of half-baked creative ambition run amok," says Variety's Sonia Saraiya. "[It] wants to be gritty, but it doesn't quite know how," says Slate's Willa Paskin.
The critical consensus on the whole seems to be that the show — which has a pretty solid IMDB rating of 8.6/10 — has failed to convincingly teleport us to 1970s NYC. And frankly, it's a mess. The CGI isn't realistic enough, they say; the archive footage of the Bronx is awkwardly spliced in; the bright red Pumas look too box-fresh. But let's face it: evoking the Bronx in the late 70s when it looked more like the wild west — with its crusty buildings and graffiti-stained streets — was always going to be the biggest hurdle for the production.
Yet the show does eventually pull it off, and those criticisms seem unfair. That grainy archive footage isn't supposed to be seamless, it's just there to add color, to show that yes, the streets really did look like they'd been bombed. Using those clips is tantamount to inserting a title card that says 'this is based on a true story', while drawing your attention to the crazy level of detail in this reconstruction. As for the box-fresh Pumas and spotless threads — this isn't something the wardrobe department overlooked; this was how it was. Anyone who's seen Fresh Dressed — or any documentary about NYC subculture in the 70s for that matter — will know that, as hard as it is to believe, many kids did manage to keep their threads looking as if they'd come straight from the factory. If you weren't fresh, you weren't anyone. One guy in that documentary went so far as to say, "I bought a brand new pair of sneakers every day for seven and a half years." It was just part of the culture.
Other critics have scoffed at the lavish set design and expansive canvas offered up in the first Baz Luhrmann-directed show. Which is to say, they've criticized Baz for being Baz, all flashy editing and visual pomp. And make no mistake, he is a show off. But anyone who's seen a single one of his films surely knows to expect this. These critics might as well have written and filed their takedowns before the show aired; when really, they should've been more concerned with adjusting to the show's unique rhythms.
Then there's the "mess" of a story. Granted, there's a lot of plot threads being weaved — the birth of hip-hop, the love story between Ezekiel and Mylene, the turf war between gangs, the homosexual (or bisexual?) graffiti writer, the struggles of an up-and-coming singer, the politics of urban renewal, the references to kung fu mythology — but it never gets tangled. The story is actually more coherent than critics make out. Not least because it's anchored by the perfectly cast Justice Smith as Ezekiel. Through him we witness the birth of this new culture, from his first block party to his first attempts at laying his rhymes over a spinning record. He's basically the glue that binds the whole show together.
What's most praiseworthy, though, is how the show nails 1970s NYC: the skeletal buildings, the subway carriages dipped in graffiti, the sleazy clubs and sketchy side streets. To watch it is to be transported to the world of The Warriors and Wild Style, a world that's equal parts alluring and terrifying. It plays to our enduring fascination with old school hip-hop culture, yet the era-specific ingredients — Kangol hats and bellbottoms; 'dig this, dig that' patois — aren't overcooked like cultural clichés. Which is all the more surprising when you discover that the show was pitched as The Wire meets Glee.
As someone who approaches Baz Luhrmann's films with extreme caution, I was surprised to get so swept up in the story, to swim beneath the filmmaker's cinematic razzle-dazzle.
It was surprising, too, not to hear a jukebox of hits from that decade — shorthand reminders of the time. Instead we hear the train-like drumming of Can's "Vitamin C" running through the entire series, and the vehicle for wannabe singer Mylene Cruz, Set Me Free. Yeah, the latter you get sick of by the end. But at least it never feels tacked on as an afterthought, like someone throwing in a 70s disco number just so everyone knows that this takes place in the same era as Saturday Night Fever.
As someone who approaches Baz Luhrmann's films with extreme caution, I was surprised to get so swept up in the story, to swim beneath the filmmaker's cinematic razzle-dazzle. And that's what it comes down to: it's a good story. It's fun to watch Ezekiel, aka the wordsmith, pen rhymes and hand them to his friends; it's fun to watch Shaolin Fantastic (Dope's Shameik Moore) sweat profusely as he struggles to find the sweet spot on a record; it's fun to see the whole group bring their track to life in front of a blazed audience at a block party. You're 100% with the crew on their journey, as they leave a trail of floored jaws in Bronx backstreets. That is, if you're willing to join them.
In a way, the problem seems to be Stranger Things. Any show that followed that one was gonna have a Winona Ryder-shaped shadow cast over it. For some people, this was never going to compare. And it can't. But comparing everything that screens on Netflix to Stranger Things is like comparing everything that Larry Clark has directed to Kids. You'll only be disappointed.
So many critics have thumbed their noses at The Get Down that to sit down and watch it now feels like indulging in a guilty pleasure. But this isn't Glee. And there's nothing wrong with embracing the epicness of the show, its lurid color palette, its sprawling narrative. Anyone who does will see that it's not an almighty let down. To quote a hip-hop classic: "C'mon, git down wit da git down."
Text Oliver Lunn