Netflix’s The Get Down and Learning to Get Down

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  • The Get Down is a Netflix series, executive produced by the routinely maverick Australian director Baz Lurhmann, about the flourishing music scene in The Bronx in the ‘70s, as disco gave way to the dawn of hip hop.

    The get down is, within the show, that vital moment when a DJ manages to create an infinite beat out of the briefest fragment of another track. Looping it to generate a whole new rhythm, and leaving space for an MC to rap on top.

    The get down is all about simplicity, focus. Taking a single bar and creating something new from it. The Get Down is a sprawling, overly complex mess, jerking wildly between scenes, tones and genres as it tries to cram more and more into every hour. The Get Down could learn a thing or two from the get down.

    The idea is introduced near the end of the expansive 90-minute first episode (directed by Lurhmann himself),  and it’s a revelatory payoff for what by then felt like a slog. It’s our first proper glimpse at the burgeoning hip hop scene, shepherded by none other than Grandmaster Flash.

    It’s worlds away from the over-produced disco dominating the rest of the episode’s musical palate; stripping away vocals, progression and everything else it can, reducing a song to its barest essentials, a brief, fiery moment, repeated ad infinitum.

    That the importance of the get down, and its mastery, is reiterated so often over the following episodes makes it all the more astonishing that the show’s creators have struggled to learn the lessons of their own central principle.

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    It may be billed as the birth of hip hop, but in fact the show’s ambitions are far broader. It covers the demise of disco, race relations, a mayoral election, the criminal underworld, graffiti culture, infidelity, religion, and anything else you might have seen in The Bronx. All in just six episodes. The tone veers wildly from gritty political drama to seedy soap, upbeat musical to gang warfare.

    It’s enough of a problem that even some of the show’s most promising threads become unwelcome. Its most creative touch is framing the relationship between Grandmaster Flash and his disciple, Shaolin Fantastic, in the language and tone of a vintage kung fu movie, all “grasshopper” this and “secret technique” that. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, and goes a good way to lending an epic quality to Shaolin’s quest to master the decks, but it also sticks out like a sore thumb. The pastiched dialogue jarring with the Bronx realness dominating the rest of the show.

    The Get Down isn’t a bad show – though its opener is definitely a bad episode – but it needs to learn its own lessons and trim some of the fat in its second half, and strip the show back to its barest essentials. The Get Down hasn’t quite found its own get down just yet.

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