The Netflix series The Get Down is a musical extravaganza and a gorgeous television show. It is just not as convincing as one would have hoped.
Created by Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, the 1970s-set series is about the rise of hip hop in a crumbling and corrupt New York City. It is a coming of age story for a group of kids looking for a way out of the ruin. Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero (Justice Smith) is a budding poet and politician, Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) is the daughter of an evangelical father, and dreams of becoming a disco star, Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), is an enigmatic young graffiti artist turned DJ who find himself spiralling into a world of drugs and crime, and Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling (Jaden Smith) is a wonderfully profound and abstract graffiti artist.
Each of them encounters hurdles in their path, and in the course of the six episodes that make part one of the first season, they conveniently find the solution – one spectacular music sequence at a time.
A very Baz Luhrmann production, The Get Down is consistently spectacular, much in line with his grand movie productions Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. Netflix provided Luhrmann with a massive budget to bring this musical drama to life, one that was a decade in the making.
It is a fantastical disco dream, standing on the shoulders of an always on-point cast. But despite the splendour (and there is a lot of it), The Get Down is simply a transcendental music video. Not a disappointing one, just a beautiful six-hour long ballad.
The Get Down has potential that never gets completely realised. In a categorically Luhrmann way, the series chooses style over substance. Over-the-top sets, dialogue, and emotion keep the audience out and ensure that you are always a spectator. This flaw is frustrating even in a movie, which is a much shorter format, but with a medium like TV, it is just unfair.
Television gives a filmmaker time, and thus the opportunity, to craft a detailed and endearing plot. This is what ensures that viewers return for the next episode. The need to return is dependent on a cliffhanger, an unresolved dilemma, or a sense of impending doom. By not letting the plot brew or problems fester for longer than an episode or two, The Get Down seems to have a misplaced sense of TV storytelling. Absolutely nothing remarkable happens in terms of story. And despite the stunning cinematography, by William Rexer, the show does injustice to the story of children of colour fighting for their beliefs in the midst of a financial crisis in a notorious and romantic decade. The show would have been extremely underwhelming were it not for the overwhelming grandeur in terms of art and music.
Good period drama does more than create fleeting images of the past. It transports viewers to an entirely different time and space. Netflix’s Stranger Things, for instance, does period TV very well. Everything about the show is right out of the ’80s – the story, the characters, the look and feel, and even the title font and the accompanying soundtrack. It is not a mere appreciation of the decade or nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
Another successful period drama series is Mad Men. In its seven seasons, the show moved beautifully through the decades, starting in the ’50s and ending in the ’70s. The near-accurate depiction of three decades was never done at the cost of characterisation or the storyline. The show created problems and took the time to resolve them – almost always satisfyingly. It is not just about the way a show looks, otherwise Astronaut Wives club, a series set in the ’50s that was broadcast in 2015, would have been a lot more successful too.
HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, starring Steve Buscemi and set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, was a triumph. Though the big HBO budgets made sure that it was a perfect throwback to the roaring ’20s, the show deserves credit for the layered storylines, the constantly developing characters, and a generous supply of dire situations to warrant an invested audience. The same cannot however be said about the network’s recent period show, Vinyl, which failed owing to an overdependence on clichés.
British television is packed with examples of successful period series. Downton Abbey became an international sensation. The Colin Firth starrer Pride and Prejudice (1995) is still one of the most loved adaptations of the Jane Austen novel. The comedic genius of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie has survived through the years in the ITV production of Jeeves and Wooster, a near-perfect portrayal of 1920s British aristocracy as seen by PG Wodehouse.
These shows did not merely create visual backdrops, but also invested in stories that bring the specific struggles, victories, joys, and pain of the time to life. How else will audiences connect to a place they have never visited, and feel nostalgia for a time they never lived through, if there is no conflict to reel them in?