To begin with an unfortunate hot take, Baz Luhrmann‘s cinematic vocabulary doesn’t include subtlety. For the Aussie director, every moment of drama must become glaring melodrama, color must explode off the screen, music is grandiose, and fabulous fireworks are de rigueur. The goal, of course, is in-your-face emotion, but amplification often causes distortion rather than ardent feeling. For better or worse, this is Luhrmann’s voice and at the very least, it’s a signature that’s unmistakably his. But as it was from the jump of “The Get Down,” Luhrmann is fundamentally ill-suited for a “mythic saga” of bankrupt 1970s New York depicted through the prism of hip-hop, disco and (on the far fringes) punk rock. In this regard, “The Get Down” is not far off the mark from Martin Scorsese’s failed HBO show “Vinyl,” and includes many of the same inherently overstuffed problems.
While Luhrmann’s tendency for stylistic exaggeration arguably works within a glitzy disco milieu, the bombed-out grit of the Bronx-born boom is largely lost on the filmmaker, a critical error for a show that largely focuses on the birth of hip-hop and pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. If there’s a sweaty authenticity to hip-hop’s origins (and there is), “The Get Down” trades the flavor in favor of a flashy goofiness that undermines the music and the entire genre. Don’t get it twisted: hip-hop boasted brash style and swerve, no doubt, but its flamboyance was unflappable, not kitschy. Realism here is swapped for overwrought fabulism.
And while Luhrmann doesn’t direct one frame in season two of “The Get Down,” his ostentatious visual template for the show remains just as tastelessly loud, if not more so. “The Get Down” in season one was cartoony, and the show doubles down on that aesthetic this time, pushing into actual animated cartoon sequences so wacky and ill-conceived they embarrassed this viewer.
Technically the second half of season one rather than an entire new season (the production of the show went over-budget and over schedule, forcing the split between the first and second batch of episodes), “season two” picks up where the first left off, but grows darker, with characters testing the limits of their maturity. Zeke (Justin Smith) is trying to balance rolling with the Get Down crew — the name of his B-Boy group — with going legit. He’s been offered an internship that could lead to a ticket out of the Bronx and possibly a future at Yale. The self-serving, braggadocio-filled Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) is still hustling dope, cheating his crew out of their share and falling deeper into the dangerous debt of club owner Fat Annie (Lillias White) and her hot-blooded son and superfly gangster “Cadillac” (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Meanwhile, Mylene’s (Herizen F. Guardiola) singing career is blossoming, but remains at odds with her super-conservative preacher father (Giancarlo Esposito) and her shady record producer (Eric Bogosian), who want to transform her virginal look for a more sexpot appeal. Caught in the middle is her loving uncle and South Bronx political figure Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits), who’s hoping to assist Mylene’s success without alienating his hardcore evangelizing brother. Cruz also juggles helping the interests of his community with the Faustian deals and corruption of New York City politicians and moneymakers.
The rest of the Get Down crew have their own subplots and storylines, the most unintentionally hilarious featuring an air-headed Jaden Smith (essentially playing a loopy version of himself), an artist who doesn’t fit in with the world around him. Worse, rather than depicting the grittiness of his graffiti (he’s a bomber), Smith’s tags come off like they were done by a toddler on LSD with light-bright finger-paints.
“The Get Down” follows this trajectory with everyone falling deeper into their sinkholes of problems, duplicities, betrayals and compromises that all prevent each character from achieving their goals. But the storylines are always undone by histrionic acting, melodramatic plot beats, and of course, overexcited cinematic bravura.
In many ways, “The Get Down” is so off the mark it’s borderline offensive. The filmmaker/creator and his over-the-top sensibilities possess zero Afrocentricity to them. “The Get Down” feels like cultural appropriation, not because it’s a white Australian filmmaker guiding the vision of black culture in the 1970s (though there’s that), but because it’s an antithetical aesthetic imprint foisted upon a style that never asked to be portrayed in such a cartoonish fashion. I’m forced to wonder who this show is for and question whether black audiences care about “West Side Story” meets a caricature of rap. “The Get Down” lacks realism and the feeling of FUBU.
If there’s something positive to be said about “The Get Down,” it’s director Ed Bianchi. He’s shockingly never once been nominated for an Outstanding Director Emmy Award despite helming classic episodes of “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Wire,” and “The Killing,” and yet he’s an outstanding mimic. Given the indignity of directing a show this gaudy, his dutiful impersonation of Luhrmann’s model is uncanny and admirable. The show also boasts the incredible ability to render the Get Down crew (all relatively tall, with Moore at six feet) as little runts.
The simplest précis: “The Get Down” wants to portray their teenage protagonists as the superhero Jackson 5 of hip hop, but missing its mark nearly always, they come off as the silly bubblegum version of The Monkees instead. While the heavy influence of the over-the-top sensibilities of 1970s martial arts and Shaw Brothers-infused kung-fu is in line with the exaggeration the show is aiming for, the corny HIYAH!-ness just feels further off beat.
If you enjoyed season one of “The Get Down,” you’ll be largely satisfied here, but if you had reservations about the show initially, they will not be quelled. While trying to celebrate hip-hop, disco and the Big Apple of the late ’70s, much like “Vinyl,” the expressionistic ‘Get Down’ makes the mistake of piling on style as a way to over-communicate how special, fertile and important this period is in BIG, BRIGHT LETTERS. Ultimately, its blustery razzle-dazzle is just exhilaration unchecked, vibrancy gone wrong and a misguided New York love letter even Hallmark would reject. [D+]