THE GET DOWN Season One Part One Review

the get down

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Baz Luhrmann has found his medium and it is television.

Though broken into two parts against the producers’ wishes, THE GET DOWN pulls the audience so effectively into the electric era of disco and nascent hip hop that I doubt the series will have trouble bringing audiences back for another round. The issues that plague Baz Luhrmann’s films seem to have been counteracted by the episodic format of television. Where Luhrmann’s films lose steam, THE GET DOWN keeps the train moving, chugging along and conserving momentum through the end of one episode and into the next.

the get down opening shot

Oddly enough, this features much less Jay-Z than Luhrmann’s last project…

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The series opens with rapped lyrics narrating the state of New York City in the late 70s — the lack of money, the absence of services, corruption of politicians, and the crumbling and burning neglected Bronx. The narration of this unnamed character (that we must assume is the main character as an adult) is present throughout the the series, setting the tone for the events that follow. The narrator is voiced by Nas, who also serves as executive producer.

Grandmaster Flash, also a character in the series, is credited as associate producer. Much of the series was inspired by Flash’s own anecdotes about the period, including the presence of parents at “get down” parties. Flash relays that his own parents condoned him holding these parties to encourage kids to keep off the streets and fight with rhymes instead of fists.

In the first episode, our hero Zeke (Justice Smith) is rejected by his angelically voiced sweetheart, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), escapes a shooting in a nightclub, and is introduced to the “get down” for the first time (yeah, it’s a long day). Zeke meets Shaolin Fantastic (DOPE’s Shameik Moore), a graffiti guru pursuing DJing, whose name, like Shaolin’s mentor Grandmaster Flash, is kung fu-inspired.

the get down entrance

The most epic and awesome entrance of any character ever — okay, well, maybe not ever, but totally in this show

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THE GET DOWN pays homage to the influence of kung fu on the hip hop genre, incorporating fun stylistic elements like sound effects, language, and imagery into the journey of our hero. While the use of these elements may seem discordant to those unfamiliar with kung fu movies, those who are in on the allusion will appreciate the many nods.

The blending and remixing of styles is especially appropriate for a series about hip hop, a genre notoriously defined by its use of sampling. THE GET DOWN “samples” many different cinematic genres within its slick story, but ultimately goes above and beyond with a world that is all its own. The exchange of ideas and styles between different movements of the era (including voguing, punk, disco, pop culture, and the aforementioned kung fu) is used to great effect to tell this story of Zeke and his friends as they navigate the Bronx as teenagers.

THE GET DOWN also deserves congratulations for its unobjectionable portrayal of women in its story. Zeke’s love interest, Mylene, is so much more than just that. She has big dreams of her own and a fire within her to achieve them, a contrast with Zeke’s apathy. Mylene knows exactly what she wants and she won’t let anything block her way; not her family, not predatory men, not even her desire to be with Zeke. Her two best friends Yolanda and Regina support her and advise her, and by the end of the half-season, join Mylene on stage as her backup singers, climbing their way out of the Bronx to stardom. They show courage and intelligence in the sometimes fiercely adverse conditions they face.

the get down bs

Pictured: These girls aren’t taking any of your BS

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Because THE GET DOWN is told from the point of view of the crew of teens, the voice, while not naively optimistic, is still innocent and earnest. The questions the kids ask of society are questions the adult population has become too tired or too jaded to ask though still deserve to be answered. Zeke wins a poetry contest in his class with a poem that describes the death of his parents as a result of the violence and poverty that plague the Bronx. This poem, and the rest of the series, points a finger squarely at the politicians who controlled the boroughs from their cushy offices in Manhattan while vilifying and neglecting the communities like the Bronx. A candidate for mayor in the series even tells another character that he only talks about coming down hard on graffiti writers because “the plebeians love it when I rail against graffiti!”

But back to the fun of the series, of which there is no shortage. The cast shines as bright as the giant disco ball in the opening episode. There are a few bigger stars like Kevin Corrigan (SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS), Jimmy Smits (STAR WARS), and Jaden Smith (Twitter), but the majority of the cast is on their first or second credit, and all were cast for their immense promise as artists. The music these young artists produce in the show is soulful and intense, from the hymn-turned-disco anthem “Set Me Free” to the rap battle that concludes the last episode of this half-season.

the get down epicness

If you can’t get down to this epicness, you can’t get down to anything

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With an almost completely non-white cast, THE GET DOWN finally affords a wide range of artists of color the opportunity to showcase their skills, and I am certain that we will be seeing all of them soon as top-billed names. Before THE GET DOWN, Justice Smith had only one credit (PAPER TOWNS), as did Shameik Moore (DOPE). Herizen Guardiola (who plays Mylene), as well as Shyrley Rodriguez and Stefanée Martin (who play Mylene’s best friends Yolanda and Regina), had never stepped in front of a camera before this show. In fact, it was Shyrley’s first audition ever. Mamoudou Athie, whose role is Grandmaster Flash, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (who plays the villain, Cadillac) are both recent Yale School of Drama graduates, joining the ranks of successful graduates that include Meryl Streep, Lupita Nyong’o, and Paul Giamatti, among others. The youngest of the cast at fifteen, Tremaine Brown Jr., was discovered busking on the New York Subway and was asked to audition for the show. Like Brown, many of the young cast have both burgeoning music and acting careers and are being smart about leveraging their exposure in this show to advance in both areas. Moore and Guardiola both expect to release albums soon.

the get down together

Though probably not together from the looks of it

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I pray that this series is a sign of the progression of representation in media and not just an anomaly. I do think that this show will appeal to audiences of all genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses. I hope THE GET DOWN can prove that a cast with primarily non-white actors can hold its own and draw as large an audience as its less diverse counterparts. But even if THE GET DOWN does manage to stick around for renewal, will it be recognized for its strengths? If MOZART IN THE JUNGLE can win a Golden Globe, THE GET DOWN should at least be nominated.

I am disappointed that a mere half of the first season was released only because I am so impatient to finish it! I don’t think that the split will adversely affect the second half, so it can only get better from here. As of this review, the second half of the season will be released sometime in 2017… And I can’t wait to come back for more!

Verdict: Recommend

Nicole Barraza Keim

Nicole Barraza Keim is a graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts and fervent Trekkie. Her passion is promoting positive change in media by creating content about all types of women kicking ass! To keep up with Nicole’s reviews, follow her on Letterboxd at the link above.

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