Screen Test

Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann tells the story of hip-hop's birth in The Get Down

Director of The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet , Baz Luhrmann.
Director of The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet , Baz Luhrmann.PHOTO: NETFLIX
The Get Down features characters based on real hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash (left, on set with the cast) and was created with their help.
The Get Down features characters based on real hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash (left, on set with the cast) and was created with their help.PHOTO: NETFLIX
Director Baz Luhrmann with Justice Smith, who plays Ezekiel "Books" Figuero in The Get Down.
Director Baz Luhrmann with Justice Smith, who plays Ezekiel "Books" Figuero in The Get Down.PHOTO: NETFLIX

With Baz Luhrmann - director of highly stylised, music-driven films such as The Great Gatsby (2013), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Romeo + Juliet (1996) - you know you are going to get a heady, eclectic swirl of sounds and visuals that is at once excessive, exuberant and lusciously campy.

And whatever the narrative, this aesthetic sensibility is often so strong it stands on its own - although occasionally in a "the story wasn't that great, but boy did it look/sound good" sort of way.

Going by the first three episodes of his new 12-part Netflix series The Get Down, Luhrmann continues to play to these strengths, but he aims much higher this time, by tackling the origin story of a musical phenomenon, hip-hop, that ushered in a new mode of cultural creation.

The setting is New York in the 1970s, a halcyon time for musical innovation, with disco, rock and punk simultaneously thriving despite - or perhaps because of, as this show suggests - the city's dour economic prospects and problems with crime, corruption, drugs, blackouts and arson.

A group of teenagers in a tough neighbourhood, the South Bronx, find solace and escape in different ways: smart and sensitive Ezekiel, nicknamed "Books" (Justice Smith), through his poetry; Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) with her dreams of becoming a disco singer; and their friends, the Kipling brothers (Jaden Smith, Skylan Brooks and Tremaine Brown Jr), through their graffiti.

  • VIEW IT / THE GET DOWN

  • Netflix (first six episodes available from Friday)

    3.5/5 stars

But everything changes when the boys encounter a street-savvy hustler named Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), who introduces them to a new kind of music being played at "the flyest underground parties in the Bronx".

One of hip-hop's real-life pioneers, Grandmaster Flash (played here by Mamoudou Athie), shows them how to create it by taking an existing record and moving or "scratching" the vinyl manually on the turntable to isolate "the get down", which is basically the best bit of the song, the part that people really groove to.

This was long before the days of laptops and editing software, of course, so they had to rely on nothing but a pair of turntables, a mixer and an almost savant-like command of timing to sample the two tracks and create something recognisable, but entirely new - a piece of music where the dud bits of the original songs, which Flash dubs "the wackness" or "a void of useless nothing", are edited out.

You do not have to be a fan of hip-hop or rap to appreciate this sound - or, for that matter, its metaphorical resonance for these characters, who see in it a way to assert their identity in a world stacked against them.

Luhrmann has always had a good ear for finding irresistibly catchy tunes for his films and this is no exception. The beats are infectious, as is the delight they elicit in the characters, especially the likeable young cast.

And because of hip-hop's far-reaching influence in pop music today, some of these 1970s grooves sound oddly contemporary to modern ears.

The series also shoots for some bigger ideas, but it is too early to tell if it will hit the mark.

Poor black and Latino kids experience this musical awakening, which becomes a new way to assert their identity and perhaps create a better life.

Adults such as Mylene's uncle, Papa Fuerte (Jimmy Smits) - a South Bronx politician with ambitions for his niece and neighbourhood - are also trying to game the system.

In this context, the new music becomes an expression of rebellion against authority and the status quo.

Standing in for the status quo are Mylene's father, a preacher who thinks her sexy singing makes her a sinner, and a shop owner who does not understand why children are buying turntables and mixers from him and who thinks their new music is "garbage" because "no one's singing - it's just boom boom scratchy scratchy boom boom scratchy scratchy".

When you take away these underlying themes and the musical embellishments, though, the human drama is a little basic. The reinterpretation of the classic tale of young heroes battling obstacles to fulfil their big dreams is supported by character studies that are rather simplistic and sometimes feel like an afterthought.

One problem with the highly stylised theatricality of Luhrmann's approach is that it is especially prone to tonal inconsistencies. It is cartoonish acting one moment and heartfelt naturalism the next, with the music accentuating the uneven peaks and troughs.

But there is an undeniable lyricism running through The Get Down that elevates it to more than the sum of these parts - whether it is a campy, synchronised disco-dance scene or Ezekiel's devastating poems about his life and the city and the messy mix of hope and despair they represent.

At this stage, it is more than enough reason to keep watching and see how the show follows through.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Elevated by an undeniable lyricism'. Print Edition | Subscribe