This summer’s freshest new show, “The Get Down,” is next to rule the Netflix original series pack. “The Get Down” takes place in 1977, during the dawn of hip-hop. It’s a musical drama that follows a ragtag group of teenagers growing up in the South Bronx. The show focuses on Zeke and Mylene–a pair of lovestruck teenagers who, with the help of their friends, start to build lives in music; Zeke, a wordsmith, starts rapping in the underground hip-hop scene, and Mylene relentlessly pursues her dream of becoming the next disco diva.
The plot intertwines a mash-up of storylines: teenagers come of age in a neighborhood in the grips of arson epidemic and urban decay, expressing themselves through music and art; a ruthless female crime boss, named Fat Annie, runs the streets and a notorious nightclub with her trigger-happy, disco dancing gangster son; a political boss uses his corrupt authority to rebuild the South Bronx; all rooted in a re-telling of hip-hop origins and the cultural history of New York during the late 70’s.
Each episode is backed with an epic soundtrack of original and popular hip-hop, soul, and disco tunes, from The Sugarhill Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire to Leon Bridges and Kamasi Washington, to an original gospel-disco song performed in the show by Mylene. Nas and Grandmaster Flash co-produce the show and also wrote original music for it, including most of the ryhmes. Zeke’s story somewhat mirrors Nas’, who began rapping as a teen in the Queensbridge projects of New York City. Nas voiceover-raps as older Zeke during flash-forwards in beginning of each episode.
The show’s funky style flows from director Baz Luhrmann, who made his name by re-visioning old stories with a modern twist with films like “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby.” His vision for the “The Get Down” was a series that could authentically re-tell of the origins of hip hop. Two months of extensive training for the cast in hip-hop culture ensured that the music, dancing, language, and even fashion (the costume designers specified how high tube socks were supposed to be worn) would match the South Bronx in 1977.
“The Get Down” brings in a fresh new group of talented actors. Justice Smith is a 21 year old newcomer who plays the lead role of Zeke. Some fans may recognize Smith from his role as a nerdy suburban teenager in the 2015 film Paper Towns. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Smith revealed that he was relatively unfamiliar with rap or hip-hop prior to his role as Zeke. He used method-acting to get into the mind of his character, going as far to read every book he thought Zeke would read.
Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola), the second lead, is a complex character. She is tenacious and spunky when it comes to her dreams, and willing to defy her good-girl image. Yet, having been sheltered in a strict Christian household, she is often naive. Her zealous father kicks her out, forcing her to navigate the sleazy world of record labels on her own.
Guardiola is the show’s stunning and talented breakout star. She is mesmerizing in her first scene as she belts out a song by her fictional disco idol, Misty Holloway. In the show, Zeke describes her voice as “how red velvet feels…how butterscotch tastes.” Mylene’s character arc is one of strongest parts of the show. Her determination to escape the Bronx and pursue her dreams creates conflicts that humble and strengthen her character.
“The Get Down” brings in Shameik Moore, another amazing actor, to the series. Moore was well-received for his starring role in the 2015 independent film “Dope.” He plays Shaolin Fantastic, a notorious graffiti artist turned spin-master who makes Zeke his MC and whose mentor is none other than Grandmaster Flash. The Grandmaster is the only real-life music figure in the show, but there are countless other nods to hip-hop history. Shaolin’s name, for instance, and the character’s obsession with kung fu culture is likely a reference to the Wu-Tang Clan.
The cast’s most recognizable star is Jaden Smith, who shines in a spellbinding moment in the sixth episode when he discovers New York’s underground club scene. In the midst of the erotic and wild atmosphere, a drag queen lip-syncs a disco song (performed by Christina Aguilera) while Jaden Smith’s character, Dizzee, locks lips with his crush, Thor, a fellow graffiti artist, and a man. Dizzee’s expression during this scene captures the nervous and dazed look of someone who’s about to discover unbridled freedom and sexuality. Jaden Smith has been recognized for challenging gender norms. His character, Dizzee, is no exception.
“The Get Down” has been drumming up positive reviews since its release in August. The show enthralls its audience through a seamless blend of music, history, and drama. It entertains with insane musical and dance numbers; it captivates with Zeke’s bold poetic language and compelling scenes that connect his struggles to battles against racism and social injustice still being fought today.
“The Get Down” is bold and ambitious, and at times chaotic, but it emulates the revolutionary spirit of hip-hop.
PHOTO CREDIT: Netflix