Music has always driven my heartbeat. But if we talk about my first musical true love, that’s undeniably hip hop. Netflix’s The Get Down is one of many offerings to screens big and small about my favorite art form. It is not the first show that showcases the cornerstones of hip hop: DJ, MC, breakdancing, and graffiti almost equally. What makes it unique is how essential intimacy with the crowd was to hip hop’s conception. Books’ first moments as an astonished, starry-eyed onlooker is only topped by the first time he gets the courage to move the crowd with the weight of his words.
Baz Luhrmann helmed this opus with true-to-form dramatic glitz. At first glance, it might seemingly alienate the art form from the grittiness that birthed it. Instead it highlights the beauty in the grit and the youth who created hip hop. I remember when hip hop chose me. It wasn’t the first time I heard The Real Roxanne or anything like that. That was more like the introduction to new religion. I don’t rap. I don’t DJ. I can’t draw, and you likely don’t want to see me dance. But the first time I was a part of the crowd, when imprisoned my attention with his fingertips, was my baptism. It’s like an anointing. The Get Down showcases the crowd beautifully. When the boys get their hands on a bootleg tape, Grandmaster Flash talks about the importance of the crowds that come to his shows. Without the crowd, there is no hip hop. I’m impressed with the way the show says it, even directly, without beating us over the head with it, or inserting it as a one-off. The cockiness of MCs are the stuff of legend, but there’s a pure love and light in the way The Get Down Brothers approach moving the crowd that speaks little of ego and more of symbiosis.
The theatric glamour (yes glamour) that The Get Down offers is the way I always saw hip hop: young people speaking beautiful escape into their own lives, through beats and bright colors. Hip hop was a “ghetto dream,” but when you look at Shao, Books, Dizzee, Ra-Ra, and Boo Boo, ghetto dreams aren’t shown as plain or less worthy. Dreamers and visionaries brought the culture to the forefront, and in this show hip hop – like all art – is the righteous path. If you are familiar with Luhrmann’s work, you’ll remember that the righteousness of art was a prominent motif in his production of Moulin Rouge.
Luhrmann positioning artists as leaders becomes more interesting, since Books especially was given the choice of being a rapper or a leader. At no point was it even suggested that he could be both, and it was definitely not suggested that his words could spur a movement for his own people. There is a deeper conversation about how currently, one of the largest criticisms of rappers is the poor quality of their leadership, when the truth is that those in power never had plans to appreciate what the hood had to say.
There are valid unfavorable critiques of The Get Down, particularly in Part 2, that even the most adoring fan can’t avoid. There are holes in the writing which go beyond suspending disbelief. It drones in spots. There’s also the chance in productions like this where you skip over the line of the surreal and into the irritating – a sin The Get Down commits numerous times. Mylene’s father is a great example of the writing flaws. Did every person involved in the show drop an unfavorable religious trait into a jar, then the writers just smushed them all into one person? Also, Older Books’ verses come out rather contrived and repetitive, which I blame on them being written by Nas. They sound like the verses that didn’t make it to Illmatic and It Was Written. Books’ future scenes performing for the crowd seem a bit lost and empty, which is disappointing since the crowd is so important at the beginning of the story. I can’t tell if he’s lost his love for the crowd and/or hip hop, or if it’s just poor framing and that irritates me.
Yet even with its flaws, I enjoyed and highly recommend The Get Down. Luhrmann created the show from the lens of a fan of the art, and that is unfortunately how it ultimately falls short. Luhrmann’s talent and original vision, but even as a member of the crowd, when you talk about the inception of hip hop, he is still an outsider. If you are a member of the class hip hop was screaming at rather than who it was screaming for, you will run into a wall when telling its story, and that’s ultimately what happened here. And even with that said, it was a beautiful moment for the starry-eyed faces in the crowd.
The future of The Get Down is apparently uncertain, and Luhrmann is pulling back from his hands on role, and in talks with a black director. While I expect the end result will be quite different, I would love to see whatever course corrections the new director has in store. I’m definitely team #RenewTheGetDown. We deserve to see ourselves joyful and free, at the birth of something beautiful.