Baz Luhrmann gleefully wallows in excess. Sometimes the result is greatness. Other times, you get “Australia.” With the new series he co-created for Netflix, you just get down, and to hell with all the train wrecks in the first six episodes.
“The Get Down,” created by Luhrmann and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (“The Mother … With the Hat”), is set in the South Bronx in 1977 at the moment when hip-hop begins to take root in the smoldering rubble of the burned-out New York borough and would soon push disco aside among African-Americans and Latinos. The first half of the series is available for streaming on Friday, Aug. 12. The final six episodes will be released in 2017.
The revolution in music from disco to hip-hop is reflected in the more or less central story of a young Afro-Latino named Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith in a star-making role) with musical talent to burn and a love of literature that earns him the moniker of Books among his friends. These include Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks); Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.); the gifted tagger nicknamed Dizzee (Jaden Smith) who signs his elaborate graffiti Rumi, after the Persian poet; and the rising DJ known as Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore).
And yes, you’re supposed to link Ezekiel’s last name to Mozart: Luhrmann sees “The Get Down” as operatic, much as he did “Moulin Rouge.”
On the one hand, Ezekiel creates elaborate poetry that will earn him a collaborative role with Shaolin Fantastic, who needs a lyricist. On the other, he plays piano in church in order to be near the girl of his dreams, Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola, also in a career-making role), daughter of fundamentalist preacher Ramon Cruz (Giancarlo Esposito), who despises “the devil’s music” that Mylene loves.
Her musical taste for disco also puts her at odds with Ezekiel, but he’s too much in love with her to care. She sees him as a good friend, but can their relationship become something more?
Ramon is estranged from his brother, Francisco “Papa Fuerte” (Jimmy Smits), the local political boss. Francisco is looking to advance his own career, but he has a special fondness for his niece and for her mother (Zabryna Guevara).
But these are only some of the conflicts that roil through the first half of “The Get Down.” Shao is a drug runner for club owner Fat Annie (Lillias White). But his real love is music, and he has amassed an enviable collection of vinyl that he uses to practice his scratching. His idol is Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who recognizes talent in the fledgling group that includes Shao, Ezekiel, Boo-Boo, Ra-Ra and Dizzee.
While Ezekiel, the hero of the piece, pursues the musical form called the get down that would become hip-hop, the heroine, Mylene, places her music-career hopes in the hands of a second-rate, drug-addicted producer named Jackie Moreno (Kevin Corrigan).
Moreno is a fast talker, and between his fondness for hard drugs and the number of powerful people he has offended or conned, it’s a miracle he has managed to stay alive this long. Somehow, he convinces Francisco he can write a hit song for Mylene and get the powerful head of the Marrakesh record label (a terrifically repulsive Eric Bogosian) to release it.
Meanwhile, Dizzee is competing with a white tagger named Thor (Noah Le Gros) for the most elaborate creations on the sides of buildings or commuter trains, Francisco is throwing his political weight behind mayoral candidate Ed Koch (Frank Wood), and Ezekiel is torn between pursuing his art and “bettering himself” as an intern for a city kingmaker named Gunns (Michel Gill), who is supporting Koch against incumbent Abe Beame.
Unlike Koch, Ezekiel believes that music and tagging are the art of a disenfranchised culture, the only way for ambitious young residents of the South Bronx to express themselves.
There’s more, much, much more, and virtually every contributing plotline is a melodramatic cliche. Yet even with so many familiar and easily predictable storylines, you’ll still have trouble keeping everyone straight. In that regard, it’s rather like which bearded guy is a member of which of the Seven Kingdoms in “Game of Thrones.”
From the 90-minute premiere episode through the next five hourlong chapters, “The Get Down” sizzles with great period music, almost surrealistic visuals, dance, dazzle and dynamism. You’ll follow the filmmakers to very high peaks, and then find yourself tumbling down into confusion.
Luhrmann and Guirgis often use a kind of back-and-forth structure, interweaving contrasting storylines together. The camera follows Ezekiel as he prepares to speak at a Koch rally, then cuts to Shao and his crew waiting for Ezekiel to show up at a scratch-off with the rival get down group. More frequently, the dual storylines represent the two genres of music — disco, as told through Mylene’s story, and the get down, told through Ezekiel.
The only reason you won’t get figurative whiplash as the action flips back and forth is that it’s all eased and actually elevated by the music. Whatever you’re having trouble following in the tangle of storylines, the music and dance will guide you through.
Now, Luhrmann is probably the whitest Australian since Olivia Newton-John, but he and Guirgis created the 12-episode musical drama in consultation with guys like the real Grandmaster Flash and Nas. The language is raw and naturalistic. There is violence. Yet by wrapping the stories within a quasi-operatic format, Luhrmann and Guirgis create a kind of safety zone around the reality of what was happening in the South Bronx in the late ’70s.
In many ways, it recalls the debate over the violence in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” That film’s “old ultra violence” was disturbing to some because it was stylized — and set to Beethoven, no less. By doing that, had Kubrick in effect defanged the violence?
With regard to “The Get Down,” we could ask if crime, poverty, neglect and the many other challenges of real life in the South Bronx are sanitized by all the music and dance. Yes, they are all depicted, but at a safe and musically accompanied distance.
This is just one more element to crowd into your brain as you watch “The Get Down.” It can be best described as a series of graffiti-covered train wrecks among moments of irresistible brilliance. That’s the price Luhrmann has gotten used to paying for his obsession with going over the top.