The Get Down is one of Netflix's most hotly anticipated shows, and apparently its most expensive show ever. Although I've always loved director Baz Luhrmann's vibrant aesthetic (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), he's also someone who has a tendency to produce visual hyperbole, and after seeing one of my favourite books - The Great Gatsby - reimagined through Luhrmann's eyes, I was sceptical about The Get Down. But still, anyone taking on the birth of hip hop, back in 1970s New York, deserves a watch, right?
As this is the first recap, I've arranged it more as an introduction to the show and its characters, so it might feel a little disjointed, but for the episodes that follow - five more this year and then the final six next year - the recaps will take a more chronological format. The first episode is very much about setting the scene, which is vital for those of us who know nothing about life in the Bronx in the 70s. Luhrmann paints the city as dark and degraded yet brimming with life and hope. Gangs are trying to survive and protect their turf, and the teens are (mostly) looking for some sort of escape. One thing that you can't ignore throughout is the heavy and constant mix of music, old, new and revamped; from Donna Summer to Miguel.
Played by Justice Smith, Ezekiel/Zeke is a passionate and talented poet who would rather tailor his words to make the love of his teenage life see him as more than a friend, than use it as a stepping stone to take himself out of the Bronx to a future where things could be better. Due to losing his parents, Zeke lives with his caring aunt and her not-so-caring boyfriend, a man who expects Zeke to quit school and become a 'working man' ASAP. Although they know that Zeke writes poetry they're otherwise unaware of the strength of his talent. Zeke's friends are: Marcus 'Dizzee' Kipling (played by Jaden Smith), Ra-Ra and Boo-Boo.
Early on in the show we see how Zeke really doesn't want to be in the frontline. When his supportive teacher says he has won the poetry contest and asks him to read out his poem, he lies and says that he found the poem in a book. Class ends and the teacher tells him to stay behind. 'You seem to want to be nothing,' she says to him.
She tells him that the community is dying and only leaders can save it. When she finally gets him to read the poem - he doesn't need the paper, the words are ingrained in his head - it tells the story of how he lost his parents. His mother was killed in front of him, by a bullet that was meant for his father. He says he wishes his father had been taken, as his life really wasn't worth since he had gone away to fight in Vietnam. He ends with the words, 'don't worry about your son. Someday I'll make you proud, 'cause yeah, I am the one.'
Before he leaves the classroom, his teacher urges him to think again, saying he should speak to local businessman and Puerto Rican power player Francisco 'Papa Fuerte' Cruz, who also happens to be Mylene's uncle. Papa Fuerte wants to rebuild the neighbourhood with new housing and facilities, but he's also about promoting his name; some call him a 'poverty pimp', and he doesn't know why.
The tragic love interest
If you've seen any of Luhrmann's films, you never really expect the love interest or the relationship they're in, to survive. There's always a dark ending to come. But hey, I might be wrong by the time we get to the end of the series. Unfortunately for Zeke, his friend Mylene, played by Herizen Guardiola, has no interest in falling in love; she wants fame, and she has the voice to make it happen. She herself doesn't have the most supportive background either; her parents are religious fanatics that expect her to stay at home every night to 'recite the word of God', and would sooner beat her than allow her to wear dresses and heels and go out dancing to sinful disco tunes. Mylene's best friends are Yolanda Kipling (whose brothers hang out with Zeke) and Regina Diaz, and let's just say that they're a little more interested in partying and boys than their friend is.
The entire first episode centres on a dance that's happening later that night at Les Infernos. It's important to Mylene because she's finally got her demo tape ready, and she wants to get it into the hands of ultra camp DJ, Malibu, who will be playing at the club that night. This means that Les Inferno also becomes important to Zeke, as he believes showing up with Mylene's favourite record, a rare remix, and dancing with her while it plays, will persuade Mylene to finally say 'yes' to being his girl.
Les Infernos is also the site where one of the episode's most epic scenes occurs - Luhrmann loves a dance scene and we are treated to another one later on in the show. If you're even remotely inspired by 70s fashion, you'll feel like you've died and gone to disco heaven when you see the hair, makeup and wardrobe for this scene. All credit goes to costume designer Jeriana San Juan, who's managed to blend authentic vintage pieces with modern day Gucci, plus custom made items.
Cadillac is the man who runs what is known as the hottest club in the South Bronx, and he clearly loves to use his status to get whatever and whoever he wants. Dressed in a white 3-piece suit and hat, and adorned with multiple gold chains, he'd most likely refer to himself as a real 'ladykiller', and has a thing about showing young women the 'high life', AKA a stay at a local hotel. One thing that Cadillac loves almost as much as himself, is dancing, and every week he ends up winning the dance-off at Les Infernos, but this week, he wants to dance with Mylene. Of course, Mylene wants the DJ to hear her tape, and Cadillac's the man to introduce them, but she soon changes her mind when she realises that any favour that she receives from Cadillac will have to be repaid.
Although Cadillac is well known, it's also known that it's his mother who really controls the streets, and the growing drugs market. On the same night, she's celebrating her birthday, but cheers soon turn to screams, as the gang who surrounded Zeke and his friends earlier in the episode, the Savage Warlords, show up on the hunt for Cadillac. The scene turns into a shoot-out, but as Cadillac doesn't bother sticking around for the birthday celebration, he's safe, for now.
Almost an urban myth, Shaolin Fantastic, AKA Shao 007, (played by Dope actor Shameik Moore) moves around the Bronx creating graffiti that inspires his followers, who are always living in the vain hope that they might witness his greatness in the flesh, one day. 'His hands are samurai swords', according to an adoring Dizzee, and he wears pristine cherry red Pumas.
However, Shaolin wants more for his future; he wants to be a DJ, and he's currently on the hunt for the same rare record that Zeke is trying to get for Mylene. If Shaolin finds this record for his DJ mentor, Grandmaster Flash, and also finds himself a 'wordsmith' or MC to work with, then Flash will teach him how to mix and scratch.
Shaolin first comes across the record while it's in Zeke's hands. Zeke is hiding in the background at the local record store while the owner is being shaken down for protection money by the gang Zeke and friends ran into earlier in the show. Shaolin spots the record in Zeke's hand, grabs it and runs off with it. The gang sees what's going on, and before we know it, Shaolin and Zeke run off with the gang tailing them. Anyone who loves Kung Fu films will love the pursuit scene, which ends with Shaolin hanging from a crumbling building, with his other hand clutching the record. He has no choice; if he wants to survive he must let go of the vinyl. And Zeke is down below waiting for it to drop.
Later that night, after Zeke is refused entry to Les Infernos several times, it emerges that giving the record to Shaolin is his only hope of getting in. Shaolin tells him that he knows the owner and the DJ, and will get the record played for him, if Zeke lets him keep it afterwards.
Shaolin keeps his part of the bargain, and, thanks to Zeke taking on a dodgy Puerto Rican accent, the record is played and Zeke gets to dance with Mylene.
But still, it isn't enough, and later that night Mylene will tell Zeke in no uncertain terms that they will never be official. As Zeke laments the situation, Shaolin arrives (to the sheer disbelief of Dizzee) and invites Zeke and his friends to follow him to what is the biggest underground club event. The vibe is completely different to the Les Infernos scene as Kangol hats and long socks replace the glitter and platforms and the crowd is listening to the first sounds of hip-hop, rather than decadent disco.
Shaolin believes that this is Zeke's time to shine, to show off his lyrical talent, but when Zeke gets the mike, he's laughed at within seconds, as he can't quite get it together. The mike is taken away from Zeke and he's forced to watch as an experienced MC gets the crowd going. Instead of waiting to be chosen again, this time, Zeke grabs the mike and takes control of the crowd. This sets the scene for a pivotal moment in the show; Shaolin announces his retirement from tagging (giving all of his material to Dizzee) and says he is going to become a full-time DJ. This is when you know that Shaolin and Zeke are about to start something big, something that might just change their futures and their community, as well as the history of music.
Episode 2 of The Get Down is now available to stream on Netflix