WHAT IT’S ABOUT The South Bronx is plagued by arson, crime and drugs in 1977, and in the middle of it all is high school student Ezekiel “Books” Figueroa (Justice Smith). Impressed by his gift for words, and rhyming, his nickname was conferred by his new friend, one Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), who’s a petty street criminal and works for local thug/nightclub operator, “Cadillac” (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The rest of Ezekiel’s pals — Boo Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.), Dizzee (Jaden Smith) and Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) — just know him as “Zeke.” While disco is the rage, Zeke, “Shao,” and the others begin to explore a brand-new music form, flourishing in the Bronx underground club scene, and pioneered by Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie). Meanwhile, Zeke’s childhood friend, now romantic interest, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), wants to jump-start her own music career, and with the help of her uncle, Bronx power broker Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits), enlists Jackie Moreno (Kevin Corrigan), a former star music producer who’s fallen on hard times.
This expected 12-episode series — the first six of which will stream on Friday — is a semi-fictional account of the rise of the seminal rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. (Flash was an adviser for the series.)
MY SAY “The Get Down” would almost be the East Coast version of “Straight Outta Compton” — another hip-hop origin story (about NWA) — but for several key differences, most behind the scenes. There’s “The Get Down” creator and showrunner Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”), and hip-hop star, Nas, who’s also an executive producer but has no on-air role. There’s Stephen Adly Guirgis, the prizewinning playwright and former director of LAByrinth Theater Company, who writes hard-edged plays about a hard and embittered city. He’s another top producer here. Meanwhile, “Get Down” boasts a string of celebrated TV directors, including Ed Bianchi (“Deadwood”).
There’s pedigree here, but highly pedigreed creative people tend to have egos, and those things have been known to clash. They occasionally do here, especially in the hour-and-a-half opening episode that rebuilds 1977 New York through a haze of smoke, memories, music, CGI and sepia-tinted lens.
Guirgis creates searing, intense plays (“Between Riverside and Crazy”) rooted in the stench, grit and beauty or ugliness of New York streets. Nas is a rap superstar straight outta Brooklyn. Luhrmann — an Australian by birth — is a florid romantic with a taste for (or addiction to) spectacular color palettes. A little bit of each of them bursts through the screen here. The wonder of it all — of this cacophony of style and voice — is that “The Get Down” succeeds at all, yet it often does.
Maybe that’s because these three clashing styles are so well-matched to the material. New York in 1977 was chaos, and the South Bronx was burning, and the lights did go out during one long, hot and convulsively self-destructive night that summer. Meanwhile disco was about to hit the wall, and an emerging musical art form was crawling out of the smoking rubble to take its place. A clash of styles might be exactly what’s needed to reflect this chaos.
Luhrmann finds beauty where you’d least expect to: A graffiti-tagged subway train crawling along a Bronx el in the predawn hours, for example. Nas gives Luhrmann’s vision street cred, or (to use the bigger, fancier word) verisimilitude. There are a lot of technical details about “scratching,” beatboxing and “sampling,” none of them superfluous. Guirgis’s language is authentic and raw, and tethers Luhrman’s gauzy-romanticized world of the South Bronx to the ground.
Best of all, the cast — mostly young and mostly newcomers — has figured out how to make this visual and stylistic gumbo gel.
Smith’s Zeke is the standout, and pretty much has to be because “The Get Down” is as much a coming-of-age story as an origin one. His performance is all about yearning, isolation, and romantic longing, framed by that mindset peculiar to the teenage brain: That the entire world has conspired against him and him alone.
But at heart — or possibly against most evidence to the contrary — he still believes he can find love in the ruins, and never gives up trying. Guardiola’s Mylene is his one true love, but she has her eyes trained to the south — Manhattan and a career in music. Zeke is part of her past but — because she’s ruled by the heart too — also her present. They’re lonely souls trying to figure out the world, themselves, and their futures, using their respective gifts in the effort. It’s a love story, most likely with a sad ending, but braced by Luhrmann’s romantic worldview and Guirgis’ hardened anti-romantic one, it feels genuine, too.
BOTTOM LINE A broad sprawling entertainment, occasionally marred by jarring (or warring) styles.