At one point during the first episode of The Get Down, Netflix’s new drama by Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, it becomes clear that the show is doing something very similar to Hamilton, still the hottest show and toughest ticket on Broadway. Just as Hamilton uses hip-hop and a multiethnic cast to recast the story of American history, The Get Down uses American history and a multiethnic cast to recast the story of hip-hop history. In the bravura first episode, the foundations of rap music laid out in the South Bronx in 1977 are retold as an epic quest, a hero’s journey, a sci-fi epic of marauding gangs taking over a bombed-out landscape.
Just like Hamilton, The Get Down uses a crackle of energy to transform a well-known origin story into something with the excitement and glamour of myth. A character going into the underworld of the Bronx disco scene to get back his girlfriend takes on the weight of Orpheus trudging down to Hades in search of Euridice, except everyone’s dancing in formation and the ruler of the underground is a coked-up gangster named Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen) who is rubbing all over Euridice. There is so much frenetic energy that you know The Get Down won’t be able to keep it up forever. And as subsequent episodes sadly prove, it can’t.
The hero on this quest is Ezekiel (Justice Smith), a high-schooler with a gift for the sort of image-free poetry all teenagers are capable of constructing, who comes into contact with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore). A graffiti artist/break dancer/drug runner/aspiring DJ, he’s so talented it’s almost otherworldly. Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) tasks Shaolin with finding him a specific record, but it’s the same record that Ezekiel is going to use to impress his paramour Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) by getting the DJ to play it at the local disco, Les Inferno. In frenetic chase scenes, the pair lose the record to one another, back and forth, until they form an alliance in order to learn from Flash and become masters of a new type of music – hip-hop.
It is a fast-paced and original 90-minute premiere – the first of six episodes that Netflix will release on Friday, with six more to follow in early 2017 – but without Luhrmann behind the camera (he directs the first episode and oversees the rest), it loses considerable steam. If it takes two to make a thing go right, Luhrmann must be a crucial element of that pairing, because the other episodes are definitely not out of sight.
The story gets muddied in a bunch of boring side-plots about Mylene and her religious parents who kick her out of the house and then drag her back seemingly every 15 minutes. Other dead ends include a Puerto Rican rainmaker in the Bronx (Jimmy Smits) who is trying to defraud the city out of money for his community’s own good, Shaolin’s involvement with the mob, and whatever Jaden Smith is doing wafting around in a spaced-out style. Smith plays one of Ezekiel’s friends, but they are never really given much personality or a great deal to do. Ezekiel pledges devotion to them when the action slackens, but why would he want to hang around with any of these losers when they have less personality than a Run-DMC album cover?
Even those characters with things to do seem like retreads. And let’s not forget Ezekiel’s insufferable poetry, which makes an appearance at least once an episode and will make anyone who doesn’t get up to freshen her drink or root around in his cabinet for some Oreos roll their eyes like spinning turntables.
There are a lot of great things in The Get Down and some fantastic musical performances – I rewatched Mylene’s disco number in the second episode several times – but it’s just not sure what it wants to be. It’s trying to tell the untold story of hip-hop and equating it to American history, racial tensions and urban blight, but its constant shifts in tone and pace seem like too many samples jammed together without making a coherent song. The audience should expect nothing less from Luhrmann, a maximalist if there ever was one, and he does come close to delivering something as original, brilliant and vital as Hamilton. If only he had the same restraint as Lin-Manuel Miranda, then his myth-making series might be legendary in its own right.