Y’all, The Get Down is Good

This is one of those statements that in retrospect seem appallingly obvious.  Of course The Get Down is good.  Anyone who has seen the show would be hard pressed to disagree.  It’s technically excellent, filled with vibrant characters, and every scene builds towards something bigger and more satisfying later in the story.

And it’s not finished yet.

I was interested in watching The Get Down when it first released on Netflix because it’s produced by Baz Luhrmann, the guy who directed Moulin Rouge! and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.  He’s known for lavish productions that emphasize storytelling through conventions of various heightened realities: in Moulin Rouge! it’s about the repurposing of pop music to tell a version of La boheme set in 1890’s Paris, and in Romeo + Juliet it’s about pairing Shakespearean language with a 1990’s Los Angeles styled Verona setting.  Luhrmann’s projects are pretty high concept affairs, and I expected no less from The Get Down.  It delivers on this promise.

The show’s plot revolves around the struggles of three teens living in the Bronx in 1977: Ezekiel, Mylene, and Shaolin Fantastic.  Ezekiel narrates the story from 1996 where he’s performing as a successful rapper in Madison Square Garden, but in ’77 he’s still just a teenager with a talent for poetry.  He’s in love with his longtime friend Mylene, who has dreams of becoming a disco superstar.  Through a series of events, Zeke also meets and befriends Shaolin Fantastic, who is training to learn how to be a DJ in the burgeoning hip hop scene.  Shao persuades Zeke to become his partner, and with some of Zeke’s other friends they form their own crew.  The primary conflict revolves around Zeke’s tension between embracing hip hop as an authentic form of expression for himself and chasing his dreams of escaping from the Bronx along with Mylene.

Our three main characters. (Image credit: IMDb)

There’s a lot of play with the idea of dual identities here; pretty much every major character straddles the line between two incompatible worlds.  Zeke is torn between taking advantage of opportunities that would give him a leg up into white society and embracing his art with his crew.  Mylene wants to sing disco music, but she also has to navigate the pitfalls of being in a very strict religious family.  Shao wants to be a DJ like his idol Grandmaster Flash, but he also has to deal with life in the Bronx’s crime world as his most expedient way to stay alive.  Besides the main three, you also see echoes of this motif with several of the other characters, including Mylene’s uncle Francisco, her producer Jackie, and Zeke and Shao’s friend Dizzee.

The way we see these dualities play out is in the relationship between a large variety of communities constantly brushing up against one another, often in uncomfortable ways.  Mylene and Shao severely dislike one another from their first meeting, mostly because Shao never resists a chance to put down Mylene’s taste in music (he describes any given disco song as mostly junk with about ten seconds of good stuff), and he persistently speaks ill of Mylene when she isn’t present, much to Zeke’s frustration.  Besides the divides in musical communities, there are also intergenerational tensions as the teenagers frequently clash with the wants of their elders.  Outside of that, we also see tensions between the Bronx’s majority Black and Puerto Rican communities and the wealthier white portions of the city in the form of Francisco’s constant dealings with New York politicians to try to get the money he needs to build affordable houses.  The overall effect is to emphasize that no one narrative is the only one happening, and it reminds the audience that all of these different movements and moments were heavily influenced by one another (perhaps the starkest example is in one episode where the New York blackout of 1977 results in looting that allows hip hop crews, previously restricted by the high cost of acquiring stereo equipment, to pop up overnight, flooding the previously sparse scene).

What’s interesting about this last point is that it’s so ridiculously intersectional.  Mylene’s love of disco aligns with more mainstream musical interests, which contrasts with Zeke and Shao’s niche fascination with hip hop; at the same time, the friendship that Zeke and Shao are building has a deep foundation of toxic masculinity that excludes Mylene in ways that have nothing to do with her different musical tastes.  Towards the end of the series’s first part, as Mylene gets her record made and seeks out the play that’s going to turn her into a star, there’s a pretty in-depth conversation about the significance of the queer community in determining what disco music becomes popular; it’s steeped in the homophobia of the era (especially as Jackie has to explain this to Mylene’s very conservative Pentecostal father), but it makes clear the power that this marginalized community wields.  That we later see Mylene’s record rise to prominence because of connections Dizzee makes by way of his work in the tagger community (who invite him to attend a party at a gay dance club) further validates this reality, especially after Jackie gets shut out through the more traditional taste makers because of his history as a womanizer.

If you haven’t watched The Get Down yet, I’d highly recommend it.  At this late stage of the year, I’m inclined to say it’s probably my favorite bit of television of 2016.

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