Television

Baz Luhrmann Just Doesn't Get It with The Get Down

Also: A truly awful Elvis movie.

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'The Get Down'
'The Get Down' / Netflix

The Get Down. Available Friday, August 12, on Netflix.

Elvis Lives! AXS TV. Tuesday, August 16, 9 p.m.

I don't know if music has really been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died, but there certainly has been some wretched television made about it. Turn on your set this week if you don't believe me.

Okay, "wretched" is too harsh a word for The Get Down, Netflix's new series about the early days of hip-hop, on which a number of rap pioneers including Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow consulted. But "bloated," "derivative," and "self-important" all seem fair, as does "scandalously overpriced." If producer-director Baz Luhrmann really, as has been reported, spent $120 million and 10 years to develop this thing, Netflix's accountants should be taken out and shot, and I don't mean with a camera.

The premise of The Get Down—one of the various names the new music went by before "rap" and "hip-hop" stuck—Is interesting enough. Set in the 1977-79 time period when Manhattan was still in the glam grip of discos like Studio 54, it follows a bunch of black and Puerto Rican kids in the Bronx who are discovering the grittier attractions of tagging, break-dancing and rap—the various strands that will grow into hip-hop culture.

Ezekiel (Justice Smith, Paper Towns) is a teenage poet scorned at home and frustrated in his pursuit of the gorgeous and talented Mylene (newcomer Herizen Guardiola), a Donna Summer wannabe. Ezekiel's spacey but talented pal Dizzee (Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness) wants to make a name for himself as a graffiti artist, just as the the legendary and ghostly subway tagger who calls himself Shaolin Fantastic (real-life rapper Shameik Moore) is ready to turn in his paint cans for turntables.

Call it the commonality of the teenage experience, or call it an homage to the 1970s film and TV shows from which Luhrmann freely borrows. (Everything from Saturday Night Fever to Thank God It's Friday to Kung Fu; and Spike Lee is likely to use a less polite term than "borrow" for the generous helpings of Summer of Sam and Crooklyn stirred into The Get Down.) But the scenes of teenagers getting nagged by adults to get summer jobs, or carped at for listening to the latest incarnation of "the devil's music," could have been spliced in from nearly any film about adolescents made in the last 60 years. Literally: When Ezekiel's uncle mocks his ghetto-life poetry by reading it aloud in a Masterpiece Theatre voice, the resemblance to a sneering Steve Allen reciting the lyrics of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" on The Tonight Show is uncanny.

That's not necessarily a criticism. (Of the movie, not Steve Allen, who has another few thousand years of writhing in Hell before he atones.) The Get Down is actually sweetly charming in the moments when the kids are practicing the Hustle for the big weekend dance concert, speculating excitedly about the content of this new Star Wars movie, or arguing the comparative merits of various comic-book characters.

But those moments get fewer and further apart as The Get Down lurches forward into vainglory, pretension, and wild excess. Teenage wonder at the world mutates into grandiose aphorism. "When we see our names on these [subway] trains, even for a fleeting moment, we can say, I was here," declares a tagger, only to be outdone moments later by Jimmy Smits, playing a politician apparently from the Unicorns and Rainbows Party, who looks across the jagged ruins of the South Bronx and announces: "I see homes for my rainbow people."

The bombast is not restricted to the dialogue. The Get Down is marked by the same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink messiness that colored Luhrmann's remake of Moulin Rouge! Everywhere you look there's a shootout or a chase or a fistfight or a Gotterdammerung dance contest or one character delivering a soul-crushing speech to another. Camera trickery that's probably meant to emphasize the characters' epic sense of themselves instead induces an uneasy sense that you're watching the waaaay-too-long prologue to The Fantastic Four Visits the Bronx.

Most annoying is The Get Down's conceit that hip-hop was some kind of purgative to the Gucci-Fiorucci dissipation of disco. The bitches-and-bling themes that make so much hip-hop unlistenable were present right from the start, and as that whopping $120 million price tag on The Get Down demonstrates, show no sign of attenuating.

What may be on the wane is AXS TV boss Mark Cuban's bank account. He apparently couldn't afford real writers, actors or directors for Elvis Lives!, the network's first original movie, so he rounded up a bunch of escapee lemmings from films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Blood Lake: Attack Of The Killer Lampreys to throw their careers off a cliff. Elvis Lives! creates a black hole of sheer awfulness that threatens to suck in the entire universe and spit it back out as wayward atoms of desiccated goat feces.

Elvis Lives! stars, if I may abuse the English language past the point of a Nazi war crime, Jonathan Nation (yes, that Jonathan Nation, of Cataclysmo and the Time Boys) as the dissolute and drug-addicted Elvis at the end of his days. Searching for a post-music career, he offers to help the FBI with a mafia sting. Afterward, when cars start exploding on the Graceland front lawn, Elvis contemplates staging his own death and starting the new incognito life in which he pursues his long-time dream of being a fat guy who cleans the grill at a seedy burger joint.

Spoiler alert: The show ends with you sprawled on your couch, your skull steaming as the red-hot pokers you've pounded into your eyes sear the scrambled remnants of your brain. While I sit across the room whispering, "I told you so."

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  1. I heard about this about a month ago. I read half of an interview with Baz about the thing. I felt nauseous

    I’m about as interested in Baz Luhrmann’s POV re: hiphop as I am Bushwick Bill’s insights on how he might translate the Jewish Diaspora into a campy broadway musical.

    1. Back to the old handle?

      1. I believe the Buddha once said, “You can’t escape yourself”. Also, these guys

        1. Plus, i believe someone made a compelling argument about not abandoning an established brand.

          1. Fist was the one who convinced me.

    2. Started working at home! It is by far the best job I have ever had. I just recently purchased a Brand new BMW since getting a check for 25470 dollar this 7-week past. I began this 6 months ago and I am now bringing home at least 97 dollar per hour. I work through this website. Go here… http://bit.do/OpL0a

  2. Jaden Smith

    This was all you had to say.

    nope

    1. Still haven’t forgiven him for the Karate Kid remake?

      1. I haven’t forgiven him for being Jaden Smith.

      2. WHAT

        Jesus, its worse than i thought.You retreat from the world for a minute, and then you come back and everyone’s shit all over everything.

        1. “everyone’s shit all over everything”

          You have no idea how true that statement is.

      3. *Has seizure caused by being reminded of that God awful piece of shit that ruined Jackie Chan’s career*

        Seriously, has Jackie done anything since? I can’t think of anything he’s been in after that steaming turd bucket.

        1. DOES Jackie Chan need to do anything since? (drunken Buddha wishes he was that rich.)

      4. That remake was okay, its everything after that that sucks.

    2. He sneers at mere mortals’ 5-D chess.

  3. Also, watch Wild Style and Style Wars. neither are actually about ‘hiphop’ and its probably why they do such a good job, because you’re actually looking at “the world” around it rather than at the thing itself, and it makes a hell of a lot more sense.

    1. looking at “the world” around it rather than at the thing itself

      That sounds more up my alley. I am interested in the time period, but without the adulation that tends to get carelessly thrown at certain aspects of it today.

      1. Style Wars is fantastic, and its even more amusing because the documentarians were convinced (in 1983) that “Hiphop” had peaked and was soon to be destroyed by mass-consumer-culture which was co-opting it.

        basically, they realized that white kids in the suburbs were trying to breakdance, and Blondie was trying to rap, and rich downtown artists were co-opting graffiti….etc…. and that the whole thing would clearly be dead in the next few years. They wanted to show the actual “grassroots-ness” of the thing before it vanished.

        Wild Style is just a shitty b-movie about graffiti, but incidentally has tons of incredible footage of how hiphop existed in its earliest form (grandmaster flash dj’ing in his kitchen, etc)

  4. “on which a number of rap pioneers including Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow consulted”

    Of course they did.

    Rock, country, etc. – movie gets made about you, possibly after you’re dead.

    Hip-hop – Make movies about yourself while you’re still alive, so they can serve as an extension of the self-worship orgy you make your music career out of.

    1. The show isn’t about Grandmaster Flash or Kurtis Blow. It’s fiction. On the other hand “Rock around the clock” came out in 1956 while Bill Haley and the Comets were still around.

  5. Elvis contemplates staging his own death and starting the new incognito life

    Bruce Campbell already did it!

    1. I always thought the one with Harvey Keitel where he was the guy whose family died the same day as Elvis and pretended to be Elvis pretending to be an impersonator was the best of that genre. No offense to Campbell or the masterpiece of Bubba Ho-Tep.

  6. I do appreciate Mr. Garvin really getting his boot into the Elvis Lives! guys. Good work. Will read again.

    1. I got the feeling he didn’t like it.

      1. Yes, but there’s a certain type of sneer that I usually associate with British writers that Garvin really manages to get into on that riff. Its always nice to see a professional taking-apart that doesn’t descend into crass name calling. Just precise and ruthless.

  7. “I see homes for my rainbow people.”

    I see a Raspberry award in Jimmy Smits’ future.

  8. So, did he like Elvis Lives?

  9. Most annoying is The Get Down’s conceit that hip-hop was some kind of purgative to the Gucci-Fiorucci dissipation of disco. The bitches-and-bling themes that make so much hip-hop unlistenable were present right from the start…

    Well, there was probably a good point here but the author missed it.

    no, early hiphop was not a purgative to disco = it was a “Poor man’s version” of Disco. It shared a lot in common w/ disco. It *liked* disco. It USED disco. It chopped up disco. It aspired to the same sort of glitter and excess as disco. Why do you think all the early raps basically imitated disco tracks? and no – they weren’t about Bitches and Bling, and in fact 90% of the rap in the earliest days was mostly curse-free and simply ‘party toasting’. And in fact, the first serious departure from “lighthearted party-toasting” were actually serious-themed social commentaries rather then misogynist braggadocio. The “gangster” elements and big-repping didn’t really become the ‘norm’ until the latter half of the 1980s.

  10. Netflix’s accountants should be taken out and shot,

    Jeez – ‘nother subpoena incoming.

  11. Truly worthy of reporting on Garvin!

  12. Elvis Lives! creates a black hole of sheer awfulness that threatens to suck in the entire universe and spit it back out as wayward atoms of desiccated goat feces.

    Spoiler alert: The show ends with you sprawled on your couch, your skull steaming as the red-hot pokers you’ve pounded into your eyes sear the scrambled remnants of your brain. While I sit across the room whispering, “I told you so.”

    Gosh Mr. Garvin, you use your tongue prettier than $20 whore!”

    1. Those were the best lines in any movie review ever. This guy’s a trip.

  13. Lurhmann does much better with low budgets, kind of like government (never elect him to anything). STRICTLY BALLROOM is a top-quality B movie, with the most common plot: a journey from (usually self-imposed) slavery to freedom, but he puts such originality in the characters, dialogue, costumes, arena, music, and sets, that one is transported. I recommend that movie, and it’s especially enjoyable to watch it with people who haven’t seen it. I’ve enjoyed it several times and still listen to the soundtrack. Sometimes budgetary limitations are a good thing.
    STRICTLY BALLROOM is a fun lesson in libertarianism and politics.

  14. Lurhmann does much better with low budgets, kind of like government (never elect him to anything). STRICTLY BALLROOM is a top-quality B movie, with the most common plot: a journey from (usually self-imposed) slavery to freedom, but he puts such originality in the characters, dialogue, costumes, arena, music, and sets, that one is transported. I recommend that movie, and it’s especially enjoyable to watch it with people who haven’t seen it. I’ve enjoyed it several times and still listen to the soundtrack. Sometimes budgetary limitations are a good thing.
    STRICTLY BALLROOM is a fun lesson in libertarianism and politics.

  15. Thanks Glenn, just can’t get enough of this style of writing. To quote from the era: Nattering Nabob. Funny where you castigate Steve Allan for his over-the-top approach that you are also making a living on.

    “Of the movie, not Steve Allen, who has another few thousand years of writhing in Hell before he atones.”

    Say hi from me when you see him.

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  17. I enjoyed the get down. It’s like a hip-hop musical, stylish, has great young actors who are also musically talented. Entertaining plot and covers a time and place you don’t see a lot about. Sure it has its flaws, but it’s worth a watch.

  18. Graffiti artist? Enough with the bullshit euphemisms. The correct term is VANDAL!

  19. So, someone who doesn’t know the difference between Rap and Hip Hop writes an article about a show he would never be interested in. Hmmmm, that’s like me reviewing something on country music. Well, I would never do that, because I’d end up looking as ignorant as these comments and Glenn Garvin.

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  21. I watched the 1st ep and found the tone a bit bizarre, somewhere between ‘Cooley High’, ‘The Warriors’ and ‘High School Musical’. I’m a fan of Luhrmann’s, and though his indulgences and excesses are well noted I was curious to see how he would interpret America’s latest, greatest musical reinvention since the blues.

    And to reduce the entirety of hip-hop culture to ‘bitches-and-bling’ is a common refrain but always seems to miss the point. If you’ve really been paying attention the essence of hip-hop has been around forever. “I am large/I contain multitudes” is among the coldest hip-hop couplets ever coined.

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