Its 1977 in New York City, there is corruption in the city council, greedy developers are intent on gentrifying the poor neighborhoods and politicians struggle to keep graffiti off subway trains and abandoned buildings. Disco is at its peak, with countless, infamous nightclubs where celebrities, drug dealers, pimps and gangsters indulge in all manner of extravagances, whilst in the rubble-strewn sprawl of the South Bronx an underground music culture is rising that will not only take over the city but the entire globe, It’s the birth of hip-hop music.
In the next 40 years hip-hop became a billion dollar industry and disco was practically forgotten unless you happen to share Baz Luhrmann’s nostalgic inclinations and wish Studio 54 re-opened its doors; but for now let’s leave that in the dust pans of history.
Watching the Netflix series The Get Down, you can’t deny the small screen’s power to re-interpret a forgotten musical trend through the eyes of shady characters and introduce it to a new generation of music fans who did not grow up dancing to its soul-influenced, melodic rhythms. The Get Down takes audiences back to an era where young people struggled through the week and had the time of their lives every weekend. Already in its 2nd season the drama is fastidiously well researched re-telling in gritty details the origins of hip-hop with DJ Cool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa making cameos throughout the series. Disco provides a counterweight to the story clearly showing the fall of the phenomenon as all kinds of sleaze from record label executives to film directors sift through human misery searching for the next Donna Summer.
This musical period-drama was created by Baz Luhrmann and produced by music journalist Nelson George. The main protagonists are Ezekiel Figueroa a young black Puerto Rican teenager who is a talented poet, wordsmith and promising student but he gets involved with a young man from the streets named Shaolin Fantastic, an apprentice DJ under the wing of Grandmaster Flash who is trying to start a hip-hop group called the Get Down brothers and completely revolutionize popular music by sampling, cutting and scratching disco records whilst his 3 MC’s rap over the music. The term Get Down means taking a 10 second drumbeat on a record and manually editing it from one drum solo to the next extending the beat so MC’s can rap over it, a technique invented by Grandmaster Flash in the mid 70’s.
The main female protagonist Mylene Cruz is an attractive young woman who has dreams of becoming a disco singer but whose father a devoted Catholic wishes his daughter to only sing hymns about God in his church. Of course Mylene and Eze kiel are also in love and they come into conflict over his dreams of music stardom in the Bronx instead of going to University and trying to find a real job. Other revolving characters are Papa Fuerte (played by Jimmy Smits) a businessman working with politicians and other business leaders to deliver housing, healthcare and jobs to his community. A friend of Mylene’s family Papa Fuerte encourages her to start considering a career in singing seriously and introduces her to record executive Roy Asheton owner of disco label Marrakech Star, the label that turned Donna Summer and the fictional character of Misty Holloway into super stars.
Hip-hop star Nas executive produced and wrote the rhymes that narrate the story; each episode begins with him rapping as if he was the adult Ezekiel. There are notable villains in this series too; one being Cadillac a gangster and drug dealer who loves disco and hates hip-hop with a vengeance wishing death upon all of the Get Down brothers. Cadillac is the son of Fat Annie a wicked woman running the notorious Les Inferno club in the Bronx who lures Shoaling Fantastic to help her push drugs and in return offers the Get Down brothers a record contract and allows them to play a show at her club.
The first season of the Get Down was more concerned with character development and the flamboyance of the period with the drama revolving around the conflict between the popularity of Disco and the rise of hip-hop. Season 2 however really kicks the plot line into overdrive with many twists and turns in the narrative not to mention outrageous sub-plots making it a really entertaining story that keeps you wondering what more trouble these people will find themselves in.
The cast does a great job in portraying their characters and the trade mark of Luhrmann’s art direction from the costumes and fashion accessories to the flashy sets are spot on and really do stand out. The superb soundtrack includes all the popular black 70’s music from funk, Jazz, RnB and classic Disco hits such as Got to be Real by Cheryl Lynn and hip-hop anthems like Rappers Delight by Sugarhill Gang. In fact all the elements of hip-hop culture are heavily featured from MCing, breakdancing and graffiti to Dj’ing embracing a real lesson of what shaped this culture in its early heyday.
Luhrmann also adds his other magical touches like stylistic editing, colorful lighting and amazing cinematography, particularly with musical performances as he’s done in his previous films really making the story come to life.
As comic books and graphic novels were also highly popular in the late 70’s season 2 introduces a stylistic departure via a comic book format telling parts of the story in a cartoon configuration. However I found it didn’t add to the enhancement of the story and felt unnecessary.
On the other hand an interesting subplot is when Ezekiel takes on an internship with a business firm that mainly employs white middle class students and he’s the exception to the rule. The boss of the company likes Ezekiel and his daughter also fancies him; keeping to the contrasts of the period she tries introducing him to The Ramones and other punk music of the time.
With all the cultural references this really is a hybrid of real events cleverly combined with fictitious characters and incidents tailored specifically for young people who might not know the history of the origins of hip-hop and the glamourous decadence of disco, The Get Down is a trip down memory lane and all the artists who once carved the way for a generation of hip-hop stars to come to the forefront. The HBO series Vinyl attempted something similar with rock music and also had a great cast but failed to get a 2nd series. The Get Down has exceeded all expectations and there could be the possibility of a third one in the works.
Overall The Get Down is a breakthrough original production for Netflix having premiered both series in 190 countries and receiving great reviews. Regardless if you’re into hip-hop or disco The Get Down ties drama, romance and music in a very satisfying package that makes for exceptional viewing.
Four and a half stars out of five!