Netflix’s new series The Get Down features the death of disco and the rise of hip-hop in the Bronx circa the 1970s. Series creator Baz Luhrmann utilizes his no-holds-barred extremist style to produce a complicated product. The series features some truly transcendent moments filled with beauty, pain, and true poetry. It’s also kind of an unholy mess. It’s now streaming on Netflix, but it’s definitely not made for the binge watch.
I’ve liked a lot of Luhrmann’s work. Romeo and Juliet was an intoxicating interpretation, and Moulin Rouge! was a riotous romp, but I have to be in a particular mood. I emphatically hated The Great Gatsby. Sure, there were moments of visual splendour, but with source material to work with there’s no need for the dialogue to feel forced, and why the hell do you have the framing device where Nick Carraway ends up in a mental institution? It’s not in the book kids. Sure it’s not an easy text to take on, but to have decadence for it’s own sake in a movie about a film that warns about toxic quixotic fascinations and the dangers of excess is pretty fucking ironic. I would be able to appreciate said irony if the movie didn’t make me so mad.
And so I went into watching The Get Down with my ridiculous ire, and perhaps not ready to enjoy it. That’s probably what made it difficult to engage with the show, which really has some excellent elements that celebrate an all-American musical canon. It archives the legendary beginnings of wordsmiths and game-changing artistic genres in an impoverished neighbourhood of New York that once resembled a war zone. For those who relish in the world of Baz, it’s a dizzying array of wonder, shiny grit, and veritable magic. For someone like me, it’s like ordering an ice cream cone and you get a triple dipped waffle sugar cone with all the toppings plus a cherry on top that explodes into sprinkles — there are a lot of really great things, but it’s just too much.
That’s not to say that there are not parts that I truly enjoyed. The protagonist Ezekiel (Justice Smith) is engaging and endearing. Particularly, the scene where he recites a poem about his family had my heart drop to my gut. Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) is charming and clever as a part-superhero kung fu DJ. Not to mention our Donna Summers wannabe Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) whose dream of becoming a singer is something you just can’t help but root for. I wish the writers had gotten a little more creative with their dialogue though, I feel as though half the time they’re recapping what just happened and why they want what they want.
Binge worthiness is an increasingly marked measure of a show’s success. When the question, “Have you seen…?” is met with a “Yes I watched the whole thing over the weekend,” it’s taken as a true endorsement of the quality and watchability of the show. This yard stick for popularity is especially employed with Netflix original programming — seasons are released in their entirety; therefore, ripe for rapid intake.
The Get Down is not one of these shows. But does that say anything against its artistic merit? No. It’s just that this behemoth collage of sound and colour seems to be jammed into a much smaller package. With a 90 minute long first episode dripping in camp, nostalgia, excess, and over-exposition, I honestly paused the episode half way through and was like, “REALLY?” It seems as though the Baz-Netflix relationship was fraught from the very beginning with the production going way over budget and with multiple production shut downs.
Which makes me wonder: Is Baz Luhrmman ready for the small screen? The first five episodes are filled with fantastic colour and super cool music — but in terms of story telling — it doesn’t pick up until the final episode. To me it plays out as one long, long movie, not an episodic journey that weaves together tapestries of narratives and character arcs that defines great television. In a time where people throw around “golden age” to describe the content of our present TV situation — audiences are expecting more. The Get Down doesn’t just let itself be what it is. It doesn’t trust us to remember past episodes and relies on a framing device (Ezekiel from the future — Baz loves his framing devices!) to remind us why we are here. That works all well and good in a feature length film, but for a 7 plus hour investment — it just gets tired. It seems telling that once Baz is no longer in the director’s chair, the narrative synchronicity starts to pick up. His vision might just be too big for TV. The second half is scheduled to come out in 2017, so we’ll have to wait to see what happens, and hopefully the narrative continues on its more cohesive path.