Baz Luhrmann is a maximalist. He wants the budget to be enormous, the sets to be splendid, the cast to be gargantuan, the music to be cacophonous, the feelings to be magnificent. He first made his name directing the cheeky romance Strictly Ballroom and the gloriously swoony Romeo + Juliet, two good movies circumscribed by inexperience and Shakespeare, respectively. Freed from these constraints, Luhrmann made Moulin Rouge, a daring musical that starred Nicole Kidman as a tubercular courtesan and repurposed 20th-century pop songs to spin a doomed romance. The movie established Luhrmann’s style: sporadically fantastic, consistently inconsistent, a man with ambitions so grand, he belly-flops in black tie. Every movie Luhrmann has made has been more majestic than the last—and also worse. He has never met a soaring, emotional set piece he didn’t try to pilot into the oxygen-depleted stratosphere, as his next films, the expensive epic Australia and the handsomely empty The Great Gatsby, demonstrated. Luhrmann works best with limits, but he has no restraint. So he went into business with Netflix.
The result of Luhrmann’s reportedly fraught collaboration with the streaming service—even Netflix has a price tag that makes it nervous, and apparently $120 million for 12 episodes of television is it—is The Get Down, a period drama-musical-fantasia set in 1977 in the South Bronx. The Get Down, especially in its early episodes, is a chaotic mess spiked with rare flashes of fantastic. Its first episode is flat-out disastrous. But you can’t take its premise away from it: It’s great. No one on The Get Down ever walks quietly through the street, or thinks on the subway, when he or she could be strutting to a pumping soundtrack, preferably intercut with three other storylines. (The Get Down uses montages as haphazardly as a toddler licks an ice cream cone.) But at least it’s not re-autopsying the corpse of rock ’n’ roll, like the recent series Vinyl, Roadies, or Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The Get Down dives into the birth of hip-hop, the last days of disco, and the apparent end times of New York City, focusing on a gaggle of teenagers bouncing around their bombed-out borough, dealing with hormones, hijinks, violence, drugs, and love, lit up by music and graffiti, Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc, turntables and drag balls, making something vital and new, without ever having heard of the Ramones.
The huge cast features nary a white person, future Mayor Ed Koch (Frank Wood)—whose name is accidentally pronounced by a Puerto Rican as Ed Kock—excluded. The protagonist is Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith), a half-black, half-Puerto Rican, orphaned 17-year-old string bean with a neat afro, flashy sideburns it seems like he’s sporting just to prove he can, and—onstage or with a notebook—a way with words. It’s summer, the Bronx is burning, but Zeke just wants to hang out with his friends and woo the lovely Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), who has dreams of making it as a disco star, despite her strict pastor father’s disapproval. Smith’s quiet intensity grounds the entire series: It balances out the feverish frenzy of the rest of the production and befits the writer he’s supposed to be, more watchful than chatty.
Zeke hangs around with the Kipling brothers, the fast-talking, entrepreneurial Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks); cut-up Boo Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.); and the dreamy, devoted graffito Dizzee (Jaden Smith), who goes by the tag Rumi. Rumi is obsessed with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a virtuosic tagger who, in the first episode, is treated like a superhero, much heard of and little seen, stealthily making his way around the neighborhood in his red Pumas. Shao is a protégé of Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who says things like “Universal DJ rule No. 3, grasshopper” to Shao and gives him a purple crayon, instructing him to unlock its secrets. Zeke and Shao eventually have an artistic meeting of the minds: Shao will rock the tables; Zeke, now dubbed Books, will write the rhymes. With the Kipling brothers they form a crew, the Fantastic Four Plus One—or the Get Down Brothers.
The Get Down has a surprising number of things in common with ’80s homage Stranger Things, the watercooler thriller Netflix released earlier this summer. Both are heavily stylized period pieces about a group of boys who can’t trust the state, take solace in one another, and team up to face danger—one group obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons, the other music and Bruce Lee, both into comic books and Star Wars. I have my reservations about Stranger Things, but that show is canny and fleet, a high-functioning A-wing compared with the meandering parade float that is The Get Down: slowly making its way down the street, music blasting, garbage and confetti in its wake. It’s impossible to watch Stranger Things without immediately hoping that the supernatural Eleven and her pals will rescue the missing Will and defeat the other-dimensional being causing so much trouble in their small Indiana town. The Get Down has no such economy or precision, and I hope the gobs of plot and character essential to the very premise of the show that I have yet to describe suffice as proof.
To make a living, Shao does dirty work for nightclub owner and drug kingpin Fat Annie and her coked-up, maniac of a son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is involved in a minor storyline involving a gang of kids, who dress like The Warriors to burn down buildings so the landlords can collect the insurance. Cadillac also has his eye on Mylene, whose uncle Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits) is the neighborhood’s political macher, trying desperately to get funding to build affordable housing in the Bronx while decrying Robert Moses and city hall’s racist policies. Papa Fuerte’s the reason Koch and various other politicians keep trekking to the Bronx, and he’s the guy who hooks Zeke up with an internship down at the World Trade Center. (Zeke goes to his first day of work on a graffitied subway while “Black Man in a White World” pounds on the soundtrack.) Francisco is also surreptitiously helping Mylene to get a record deal, hiring cokehead disco producer Jackie Morales (Kevin Corrigan), who lives in the Chelsea Hotel, to write her a hit, while hiding it from Mylene’s uptight father Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito).
As if that weren’t enough, the show has an awful framing device: In 1996 a rapper, presumably Books, is onstage at Madison Square Garden, performing his songs, which all happen to be detailed recountings of his antics in the summer of 1977 and thus work as the series’ narration. 1996 Zeke’s flow is so different from 1977 Zeke’s flow as to be distracting, as are some of grown Zeke’s rhymes, which alert the audience to plot points to come (from the ’77 Blackout to progress in Zeke and Mylene’s romance) and act as a dopey history primer. See: “And we wondering who the hell is Koch/ This man called Koch want the mayor’s seat/ And he’s campaigning like he can’t be stopped/ Up in the Bronx they forever strong/ Don’t ever try to play ’em weak.”
The Get Down wants to be gritty, but it doesn’t quite know how. It’s like a glistening manicure with the polish laid over flecks of dirt—under a few clear coats, schmutz is indistinguishable from glitter. The show uses archival footage from the ’70s Bronx, but Luhrmann’s aesthetic is so multicolored macaroon that it flambés realism. Luhrmann shares something with Ryan Murphy, another creator with a strong aesthetic sensibility who toggles between earnestness and camp. But Murphy is less romantic than Luhrmann and more scathing; he shellacks his work in sugar that barely hides its bite. Luhrmann doesn’t have the same edge—he wants to make you cry, not bleed. He drapes gauze over everything. Everyone on The Get Down looks glamorous, not sweaty. The rubble-strewn set has the menacing air of a well-designed backlot. Zeke and Shao and Mylene and the rest of the kids are all too aware of their situation, underprivileged and under-resourced, written off by their city and country just as surely as their borough has been. But through the first six episodes—the next six will be released at a later date—their dreams all come true.
In the early episodes, all the clatter and the clutter shut out what’s good about the show: Zeke, his devotion to Shao, and his adorable romance with Mylene. The first episode, with a run time of close to an hour and a half, is almost unwatchable. But the show improves from there, sloughing off side characters and gaining momentum. The climax of the season is a DJ battle between Zeke and his friends and some Kool Herc disciples. This is essentially a battle of the bands, but teen movie tropes are powerful. Watching a group of kids ecstatically and energetically, if totally predictably, use music to find themselves and each other never gets old. The disco song that Jackie eventually writes for Mylene is a scorcher, and when Shao drops its beat during the battle, it really is a get down.
*Correction, Aug. 9, 2016: Due to a photo provider error, this photo caption originally misidentified Justice Smith as Skylan Brooks and Skylan Brooks as Justice Smith.