Thanks to the infamous record burning now known as Disco Demolition, Disco died a swift, definite death in the late 1970s. Prior to that, though, the dance-ready genre was king, and despite its death (except the occasional disco-influenced track here and there), it lives on in hip-hop. That may not seem obvious to newer hip-hop fans, but the genre has a terrifically nuanced history that has yet to be definitively documented on film.
Director Baz Luhrmann sought to fill that gap with his new Netflix series, The Get Down, but doubt has been expressed as to whether Luhrmann, a white Australian, is the right person to tell the story of hip-hop’s soulful and predominantly black origins. The early history of hip-hop is many things: colorful, musical, gritty, opulent, political, socio-economical, and above all else, multifaceted. Let’s not forget that Luhrmann has plenty of high-profile experience in making movies that share many of those qualities, like with the theatrical, French cabaret tale of Moulin Rouge!, or The Great Gatsby, a famously flashy story focused on another period of supreme cultural vibrancy.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the 90-minute premiere episode of The Get Down, which began streaming on Netflix today, is successful in its efforts to paint the picture of one of America’s most culturally important art forms.
Early hip-hop bubbled under the mainstream, under visible America, and while the debut’s pacing may take a while to get to the punch, that patience is necessary, because hip-hop’s context is as important as its sound. New York in 1977 was in a state of civil unrest, the black community marginalized and made to feel other, like their culture was less significant, like their needs were lesser than those of their non-minority counterparts. For how visible their plight was, they were so oft overlooked.
The Get Down‘s first episode presents a few salient points related to this: Dropping out of school was an easy default for black youth who felt like the system was rigged against them regardless of whether they had a diploma or not, despite their ability to be artistic and thoughtful creators, like the young poets, artists, and singers we’re introduced to. Their creativity is their ticket out, whether it’s Mylene’s (played by Herizen F. Guardiola) vocal abilities or Ezekiel’s (Justice Smith) cerebral and powerfully expressive poetry. In a society that doesn’t respect them because of their heritage, they had to exist outside of it in order to thrive, and even this early on in the story, it’s clear that their personal journeys parallel that of hip-hop’s meteoric rise.
Luhrmann’s historical interpretation is brought to life through its bright young cast, who excel in juggling the hurt and optimism of both their characters and the world in which those characters exist. Guardiola fantastically captures the passionate struggle of defying the will of your set-in-their-ways parents, Smith is perfectly believable as a young dreamer who realizes he can make something out of himself despite being dealt a bad hand, and Shameik Moore thrives as Shaolin Fantastic, a graffiti artist and aspiring DJ who sees Ezekiel’s light and the potential their collaboration can bring out in both of them.
Like Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby package tragedy and pathos of culturally significant times in opulent visuals, Luhrmann’s The Get Down, his first foray into television, has the potential to the same for hip-hop. In its time, hip-hop was discounted by those who didn’t understand it, and The Get Down does a terrific job at opening a window into a time and place that has obvious and broad importance to those who are wise enough to pay attention to it.
Featured image: Netflix