15 November 2018

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‘The Get Down’ Is ‘West Side Story’ With Rappers and Disco Queens

 

Herizen F. Guardiola and Justice Smith in “The Get Down.” CreditNetflix

There are, perhaps, less likely pairings than Baz Luhrmann and the story of hip-hop’s beginnings in the South Bronx in the 1970s. Britain and the European Union. Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. Red wine and fish.

“The Get Down,” Mr. Luhrmann’s 12-episode series for Netflix (six episodes will be available on Friday), is being promoted as “a comprehensive look at the art form’s true origins” and an authentic evocation of late-’70s New York, that caldron of burning buildings, bankruptcy, cocaine and revolutionary forms of popular music.

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From left, Ms. Guardiola, Zabryna Guevara and Jimmy Smits in “The Get Down,” Baz Luhrmann’s 12-episode series for Netflix. (Six episodes are available on Friday.) CreditNetflix

But anyone looking for the slightest touch of reality or historical resonance in “The Get Down” hasn’t watched enough Baz Luhrmann. Few filmmakers are as closed off from the day-to-day world as Mr. Luhrmann, whose ideas and choices all seem to come from the world of old movies — particularly old musicals, and most particularly“West Side Story.” In “The Get Down,” he takes that film’s strivers, spitfires and gang bangers, moves them a few miles north and repurposes them as rappers, drug dealers and disco queens.

In the 90-minute premiere episode, which Mr. Luhrmann directed (and, with Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, wrote), the result is relatively painless, even entertaining. The colors are bright and glossy, the camerawork fluid, the editing smooth, the cast endearing. The soundtrack is propulsive but unsurprising, familiar hits by the Spinners; Donna Summer; Earth, Wind & Fire; and the Trammps.

Archival film is seamlessly layered in to help establish the milieu — Son of Sam,“Ford to City,” empty blocks in the Bronx, graffiti-slicked subway cars. But despite this, and the presence in the credits of producer-consultants like Grandmaster Flash (who is also a character in the story, played by Mamoudou Athie) and Kurtis Blow, the episode never feels like anything but retrograde fantasy. Smothered in the clichés of young romance and starving-artist rebellion that Mr. Luhrmann already ran through in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge,” it’s his own special brand of candy.

For “The Get Down,” he tones down his bombastic urges — hints of sweetness and humor come through that aren’t present in his films. And it’s an advantage that he’s not working from a source like Shakespeare or Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”), so that we’re not left to wince at the vulgarity of his adaptation. Though if you take the real history of New York as his text, you might still be bothered by his superficial use of something like the blackout of ’77, which serves as little more than a convenient way to wrap up several dull plot strands. (You might also marvel that a low-rent recording studio happens to have on hand candles of every shape and size, as if it had ordered the whole Anthropologie catalog in anticipation of the blackout.)

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From left, Skylan Brooks, Justice Smith, Tremaine Brown Jr., Shameik Moore and Jaden Smith. CreditNetflix

Even on this smaller scale, though, and working with a team that includes Mr. Guirgis as his co-creator, Mr. Luhrmann has the same old problem. He’s less interested in plot and character than in orchestrating big emotions the way the great Hollywood musicals did. Which leads to a Catch-22: He can get us excited with his manipulations of image and music, but he doesn’t create people or stories interesting enough to give those feelings any focus.

That can leave talented performers high and dry, and “The Get Down” is a catalog of good actors struggling to bring some life to stock characters. Giancarlo Esposito and Jimmy Smits play brothers, an indignant fire-and-brimstone preacher and a wearily corrupt local politician, and both actors seem straitjacketed. Ron Cephas Jones manages to make something funny out of his small role as a cosmic jazz man, but Lillias White can’t do much with one of the show’s oddest contrivances, a flapper-style drug boss who seems to have stepped straight out of the Cotton Club.

The young, lesser known performers at the center of the story fare better, though their parts are just as hackneyed. Herizen F. Guardiola has an endearing, believable combination of sass and modesty as Mylene, the minister’s daughter who wants to become a disco star. Justice Smith and Shameik Moore are fine, if not revelatory, in the lead roles of Ezekiel and Shaolin Fantastic, the nascent M.C. and D.J. whose combustible relationship forms the show’s primary plotline. The best thing in many scenes is the comic relief provided by Skylan Brooks and Tremaine Brown Jr. as brothers who serve as a protective posse for Ezekiel.

Of the six episodes now being released, Mr. Luhrmann — who supervised the entire production — directed only the first, and after the premiere the tone and style shift significantly. The storytelling takes on more of the quality of a midlevel sitcom, or the ’70s and ’80s films of Michael Schultz (“Car Wash,” “The Last Dragon”), and the big moments become increasingly maudlin. For worse and for better, “The Get Down” probably should have just been a Baz Luhrmann film.

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