There was exactly one scene in Vinyl that got my blood pumping. At the end of the eighth episode of the now-cancelled HBO drama, Clark, a white record executive played by Jack Quaid, goes to a party in the Bronx accompanied by a Latino colleague, Jorge (Christian Navarro), who works in the mailroom. Jorge leads Clark through a sea of nattily dressed black and brown bodies, flailing in slow-motion under fluorescent lights. As Jorge passes a record to a young DJ Kool Herc (Dominique Johnson), a smile spreads across Clark’s face.
Unlike most of Vinyl — coated as it was in the kind of middle-aged white-man angst prestige cable dramas love to slather on — this scene was a portal into a world TV hasn’t really explored. If that scene were a show unto itself, it would be The Get Down, the Netflix original series about the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx circa 1977.
The Get Down isn’t perfect. In one scene from the 90-minute pilot — of the six episodes that will be released on Friday, it’s the only one directed by creator Baz Luhrmann — aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) explains what the eponymous term means: “Sometimes the drums only play for like, ten seconds and the rest of the record is violins and singing and shit.”
The Get Down could take a page from its crafty subjects and strip away some of its own excess fat. It’s a bit schizophrenic, hopping between genres and storylines like a DJ sampling one too many songs. And really, TV, enough with the overlong premieres; an hour is plenty. But in its sprawling vision of young dreamers creating something out of nothing, The Get Down succeeds where HBO’s similarly buzzy, expensive music drama Vinyl failed. Here’s how.
It’s actually about the creation of music.
For all the lip service Vinyl paid to the glory of creating something new, the show rarely let viewers in on that process. One scene in which blues guitarist Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) dissects the “EAB” chord progression to the young punk group he manages comes close, but the show was always more interested in leading man Richie Finestra’s (Bobby Cannavale) ongoing cocaine problem — a snoozer of a storyline — than the music he was apparently so passionate about.
The Get Down, on the other hand, is interested in both the creation of hip-hop and the world from which it sprung. The protagonist isn’t a middle-aged record exec but a Puerto Rican teenager from the Bronx: Ezeikel “Books” Figuero (Justice Smith), who lives with his aunt and her boyfriend in a high-rise apartment building and pines for his childhood friend, Mylene Cruz (the stunning Herizen Guardiola).
When the poetic Zeke meets Shaolin, his fate is sealed. Shaolin is a graffiti artist who wants to be a DJ; his “sensei” is none other than Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who’s tasked Shao with finding a “wordsmith.” Zeke and Shao’s partnership is the engine that drives the series, which invites the viewer along for the ride as they navigate the nascent world of hip-hop.
The women have more to do (and they have more fun).
I believe Vinyl wanted to do right by its female characters, in particular former Factory Girl Devon Finestra (Olivia Wilde) and aspiring A&R rep Jamie Vine (Juno Temple). Both women got a decent amount of screen time, but their stories never really gelled; Devon spent ten episodes languishing in a familiar bored-housewife plot that went absolutely nowhere, and after some promising drama between Jamie and her disapproving mother, a Holocaust survivor, her storyline became tied up in a similarly clichéd love triangle between two members of the band she represented.
These failures felt more like a lack of imagination on the part of the writers than overt sexism. Still, compared to the men, the women of Vinyl were disappointingly flat characters — and more importantly for a show set during the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, they never seemed to be having much fun.
From the very start, the girls on The Get Down are clearly having a blast. A preacher’s daughter, Mylene is more conservative than her two best friends, Yolanda (Stefanée Martin) and Regina (Shyrley Rodriguez) — the latter squeals excitedly about “getting dick tonight” at a nightclub at the series’ start. But Mylene is young and beautiful and talented — she wants nothing more than to be the next Donna Summer — and she’s not a total prude. Early in the pilot, she invites Zeke to smoke a joint with her, and later sneaks out of her house in a glitzy halter dress to go to the club with her friends. She’s not a “good girl” or a “bad girl”; she comes across like a full person, with dreams and aspirations but also morals.
It tells its story from the inside out.
Vinyl tried to tell the story of a budding music scene from the point of view of an outsider. But The Get Down begins when Zeke discovers a new way of creating music, hidden in the disco records that are beginning to fade from popularity — i.e., before record companies began capitalizing on rap and hip-hop.
The Get Down also benefits from its cast of young, mostly unknown, almost entirely black and Latinx actors, as opposed to the familiar faces of Vinyl’s Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde, Paul Ben-Victor, and Max Casella. Lesser-known actors go a long way toward adding texture and a feeling of authenticity to a TV show or film, particularly a period piece, and The Get Down’s cast of young’uns are thrilling to watch. The series avoids romanticizing the grit of pre-Koch New York City by refracting its story through the lens of these young dreamers, who are both frustrated by the limitations of their world and hopeful about the possibilities of transcending it.
The violence makes sense.
By the end of Vinyl’s two-hour premiere, it was clear that this rock-‘n’-roll parable wasn’t just going to be a show about music; it was also going to be about murder. By having its leading man accidentally aid in the murder of a radio mogul at the end of its premiere, Vinyl demonstrated right off the bat how little faith/interest it had in its ostensible subject — y’know, music.
There’s violence in The Get Down, too, but it’s not simply tossed in at the end like a hapless chef dumping a fistful of spices into a stew. The young characters pick their way through a Bronx strewn with the rubble of burnt-out buildings, occasionally crossing paths with the (fictional) Savage Warlords, a street gang whose dirt-smeared young members resemble Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. In reality, Bronx gangs like the Savage Skulls and the Black Spades played a big part in the development of hip-hop culture, which makes the gang-related violence on The Get Down intrinsic to the world of the show.
The form suits the content.
In my initial review of Vinyl, I wrote that despite the show’s admittedly sumptuous visuals, a Sunday night HBO drama is about as far from the spirit of rock-‘n’-roll as you can get. The Get Down is reportedly Netflix’s most expensive original series to date, and yet it manages to depict the derelict ’70s-era Bronx without looking too polished or art-directed.
Like hip-hop itself, The Get Down is a mash-up of genres and styles — West Side Story crossed with Enter the Dragon crossed with Super Fly crossed with The Warriors. Shaolin Fantastic wears a Bruce Lee-emblazoned belt on his hips and pristine red-suede Pumas on his feet; the character somersaults over the hood of a car as he’s introduced, set to music that sounds like the soundtrack to a Blaxploitation movie.
The production is clearly interested in re-creating the Bronx as it was in the 1970s: Grandmaster Flash is an executive producer, and hip-hop historian Nelson George is a supervising producer. Consultants include Bronx rap legends DJ Kool Herc (who, incidentally, sued Vinyl for using his likeness without permission), Rahiem of the Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa, as well as legendary graffiti artists CRASH and DAZE.
But the show has an exaggerated visual style that avoids fetishizing the “authenticity” of the era. Color-coded outfits, slow-mo action sequences, and musical numbers that fall just short of characters spontaneously bursting into song heighten the sense of place, transforming the Bronx into a fairytale setting that’s both magical and menacing.