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The Get Down ditches nostalgia in favour of a cultural remix

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The Star Wars theme plays as four MCs (Justice Smith, Skylan Brooks, Jaden Smith and T. J. Brown Jr.) and a DJ (Shameik Moore) take the stage in musical battle that closes episode six of Netflix’s The Get Down (the end of part one, with part two arriving in 2017). For the first time in decades, it feels like you’re hearing John Williams’ iconic theme for the first time—last year’s The Force Awakens couldn’t even conjure the same magic.

The show is set in 1977, the year Star Wars was released, and so it posits the idea that it’s a momentous idea to take ownership of a piece of music about to cause a dramatic shift in pop culture. With our hindsight, we know how cool these guys are before they know it. The Get Down mythologises the birth of hip-hop, and it too is about to cause its own earthquake in pop culture. With a scratch, Williams’ triumphant theme gives way to a fury of funk, soul, jazz and disco, coupled with the rhymes and grooves of the young MCs. The Get Down throws a wild party from inside the musical melting pot, but it earns the right to sample elements of pop culture and flip them into something new without feeling manipulative. And there lies the brilliance of these first six episodes to culminate in a moment like this after we’ve invested in this wild group of dreamers, their muses and the old guard (Jimmy Smitts and Giancarlo Esposito) getting in their way.

The Get Down is a stark contrast to Netflix’s other mammoth series, Stranger Things. Despite their similarities (teenage leads, paranoid parents and a period setting); Stranger Things rides on a nostalgia trip of near shot-for-shot references designed to elicit fuzzy memories. The show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, only just manage to build a story on their nostalgic foundation. There’s enough mystery to keep you going while indulging in pop culture bingo. It’s perfectly fine and the Duffers never try to pass anything off as their own, which amplifies the series’ form; it’s a clubhouse. In this ‘clubhouse,’ the references act like a secret password allowing admittance, and with decades of fetishising of the 80s; it’s getting full.

And then The Get Down comes along to blast open a fantastical vision of a time that pre-dates elements of pop culture that would become mainstream in the transition from the 70s to the 80s. Make no mistake, The Get Down benches historical accuracy in favour of moving with the passions of its teenage leads. It’s not concerned with getting an A+ on a history of hip-hop essay, but instead, it’s aspiring for perfect marks in historical fiction writing. Versions of real people drift into the narrative like Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), a mentor to the aspiring musicians, and Donna Summer is mentioned frequently as the queen of disco. The Get Down is flexible with the facts because it functions in service of the story

Many have been critical of the hyperactive style of the series with the show’s co-creator, Baz Luhrmann, an easy target for allowing the series to run wild, but take away the hormonal fever wrapped around this show and you’re bogged down in the prestige cable drama aesthetic we’ve grown accustomed to (see: HBO’s Vinyl). The Get Down has more in common with Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet than any of his work that followed and inspired millions of jokes about his obsession with glitter. Luhrmann (who only directs the pilot) and co-creator Stephen Adly Guirgis, in collaboration with the series directors (Ed Bianchi, Andrew Bernstein and Michael Dinner) craft something as wild and fluid as Grandmaster Flash commanding turntables. If Stranger Things is the grand homage, The Get Down is the cultural remix. The Get Down displays different forms of reinvention, mainly in the evolution of what would become hip-hop, yet it’s forging ahead with a story that’s had little attention on our screens, so it feels vibrant and fresh. The show itself ponders the nature of the past and present interacting with each other. The DJ is presented as a master of time and space. Grandmaster Flash has a monologue about the role of a DJ:

“…because he possesses two turntables, a DJ exists in two time zones, all right? One turntable plays music that the dancers are partying to right now, and the other is playing music that they will be partying to in the imminent future.”

To further the point, each episode is bookended by the older version of one of the MCs, Ezekiel (Daveed Diggs), playing a to a stadium, rapping about his roots which are presented in flashbacks as a bulk of the narrative.

To bring Stranger Things back into frame, it’s a show that exists only in the past (so far) and it wants to trap us there. The Get Down is fluid with its passages of time and it’s such a relief to see a show set mostly in the past that has an incredible amount of freedom with its storytelling and unshackled by nostalgia. Some of it may come from the fact that the beginning of hip-hop has never been given the origin story it deserves, and while people may gripe over facts, there’s no doubting the spirit of change is in the air in this series. If it can make something as worn as the Star Wars theme seem crisp, what other miracles can it work.

Cam Williams – Follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW 

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