I'll start this review of "The Get Down," Baz Luhrmann's wild, unique series about the early days of hip-hop in the South Bronx of the '70s, with a Seinfeldian question: What's the deal with super-sized premieres?
Too often, TV dramas open with overlong episodes that give a first impression of trying too hard. Instead of offering viewers a taste and leaving us wanting more, these extended "event" intros leave us wanting less. "Vinyl," "Boardwalk Empire," many TNT shows, and now "The Get Down": guilty as charged.
When it comes to "The Get Down," whose first six episodes (the first half of the first season) drop on Friday, the slog is really a shame. I'm afraid potential fans of this unusual and engaging series will jump ship after Luhrmann's visually flamboyant, under-written premiere. No doubt it's an impressive 90 minutes in terms of production, in the breathless merging of music, choreography, and camerawork to form a propulsive whole. The giant budget for the series, reportedly $120 million, is all on display. But experiencing the premiere is like being trapped in the most drawn-out, manic music video ever made. It's Luhrmann at his most bloated. Once the show moves into subsequent episodes, it maintains Luhrmann's trademark operatic stylizations, but it also factors in our need for a cogent, original narrative.
And "The Get Down" ultimately casts its spell.
Luhrmann, along with co-creator and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, are tracing the moment when the hip-hop revolution emerged and disco began to fade. The focus is on the black and Puerto Rican communities of the Bronx and the coming of age in 1977 of orphan Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith), a deep-feeling teen whose rhyming ability and poetic sensibilities earn him the nickname Books. He hangs out with a group of friends, including Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.), and Dizzee (Jaden Smith), and he is crushing madly — and unrequitedly — on Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola), the Donna Summer-loving daughter of fundamentalist preacher and disco-hater Ramon Cruz (Giancarlo Esposito). Ezekiel connects with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), and together they work to understand "scratching" with turntables and rapping. They receive "Kung Fu" guidance from their idol Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who gives his grasshoppers a crayon as a mysterious talisman.
And that only scratches the surface — vinyl joke intended — of the plot strands on the show, which reach into New York politics, the record industry, nightclubs, drug-dealing, church, and the world of graffiti art. At first, as with broad-canvas shows including "Game of Thrones" and "The Wire," you might have trouble keeping track of everyone. But then it's all held together by Ezekiel's story, the rousing music, the provocative editing between parallel scenes, and the absorbing musical and social history, as we watch the essential elements of hip-hop fall into place. Lurhmann, a white Australian, has brought in African-American advisers including author Nelson George, hip-hop artist Nas, and hip-hop DJ-ing pioneer Grandmaster Flash in his attempt to evoke authenticity, but in the end he's not trying to deliver a factual account so much as historical fiction.
The performances, too, are a big draw. Just as "The Night Of" has put Riz Ahmed on the map, "The Get Down" is sure to be a breakthrough for the compelling Justice Smith. He's both innocent and savvy beyond his years, optimistic and brooding, and he brings the performing chops to deliver raps that seems improvised. He and Guardiola work together beautifully, as he moons over her while she feels more mature than him, and more ambitious as she works to be a disco queen. Likewise, Smith and Moore — Ezekiel's other primary relationship is with Shaolin — build a powerful creative friendship that has its own rocky moments. And they are surrounded by a number of rich turns by the older actors, including Kevin Corrigan as a record producer and Lillias White as the cigar-smoking club owner who uses Shaolin to deliver drugs, among other things. Many of the roles are written as archetypes, but the cast brings much-needed distinctions to them.
A few recent shows, including Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" and Martin Scorsese's "Vinyl," have struggled unsuccessfully to portray the world of pop music through TV storytelling. "The Get Down" struggles, too, but with better results after its bombastic opening salvo. The series is an addictive celebration of the music, and the hope and romance it engenders, even while the urban landscape we see, at times in news clippings, is in ruins. It's lyrical, vital, upbeat, extreme, sprawling, hackneyed, flawed, and easy to forgive.
THE GET DOWN
Starring Justice Smith, Herizen F. Guardiola, Jimmy Smits, Giancarlo Esposito, Shameik Moore, Lillias White, Eric Bogosian, Mamoudou Athie, Kevin Corrigan. On Netflix, available Friday