These Are The Breaks
Some people prefer fiction, they will tell you, because it is infinitely malleable. While history must only tell us what is known, fiction can tell us what is merely imagined, and it can do it in any order; only fiction, some have argued, can tell a truly complete story, because it can tell us the secrets, the dreams, and the lost and hidden moments that will never be available to this historian. And when the fiction is well-executed by a skillful storyteller, this is absolutely true. Fiction can tell us the truths that are not available to us in any other way.
But when it is poorly done, fiction can leave you agog with how incredibly poorly it serves its subject. There has been no event in human history as momentous as the Second World War, and yet dozens — hundreds — of movies and books manage to make it seem tedious and trite. The life of Jackie Robinson and the story of how he became the man to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier could not be more fascinating if it was a pure invention, and yet 2013’s 42 managed to turn it into a mawkish, predictable, and completely bloodless bit of hagiography. And this year alone, two expensive prestige television series, HBO’s blessedly canceled Vinyl and now Netflix’s The Get Down, have attempted to tell the story of the music scene in late 1970s New York — one of the most electrifying places and times in 20th-century cultural history — and somehow managed to make it corny, boring, and dumb.
We’ve discussed Vinyl in this space before, and there was good reason to expect that The Get Down would have many of the same problems. Both were produced under the supervision of aging white men whose ego too often gets in the way of their storytelling; both mistakenly think an outsized budget buys you quality, and both spend money in the wrong places; both get little things right and big things wrong; and both brought in advisors (both musicians who were actually there and writers who have studied the scene intensely) whose presence may have guaranteed verisimilitude, but who did nothing to fix the broken storytelling that made both shows nearly unwatchable.
The man responsible for The Get Down is Australian tyro Baz Luhrmann, and while I have no idea what his hip-hop credentials are, I have seen a lot of his movies, and the show falls victim to a lot of the same qualities that sink them. It’s big and loud and colorful and flashy, which is perfectly suitable for a TV show about the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx of the 1970s, but all too often that’s all it is. The characters aren’t in the least bit engaging, the story is the kind of cornball histrionics that was attracting knowing snickers as long ago as the late forties, and, as is typical of Luhrmann, he seems to be genetically incapable of understanding the point of the stories he exhausts so much energy trying to tell. As a history, it’s polluted by the fact that it’s bad fiction, and as fiction, it’s frustrated by having to hew so close to history without ever quite getting it right. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and so it just ends up flapping around on screen, unable to either swim or fly.
It’s absolutely possible to tell a straightforward history of hip-hop’s early years with no decoration whatsoever; Ed Piskor’s boisterously brilliant comic book series, Hip-Hop Family Tree, does just that. It’s also possible to use hip-hop history as the background for a dramatic fairy tale; movies have been doing that to greater or lesser success since Wild Style. But The Get Down fails at both. Despite the presence of Grandmaster Flash, Nelson George, and others on its advisory board, its hip-hop history is a steaming mess, cramming perfect period details up against complete nonsense and sacrificing truth for a story that still never manages to hold together. And as fiction, it’s hobbled by its hackneyed approach: the central romance isn’t in the least bit interesting, the characters are allowed to have one characteristic at best, its female characters are nonentities stuck in a subplot that was stale when the first version of The Jazz Singer came out, and its ‘let’s put on a show’ dramatic arc leaves it with nowhere to go at the end of its abbreviated first season.
It doesn’t help that the cast is almost impossible to like. As is often the case with fictionalized artists being made to interact with actual artistic history, everyone is insanely talented; Justice Smith’s crew are not only the best rappers, DJs, graffiti artists and breakdancers in the city, but they master styles in 1977 that wouldn’t even exist for a dozen years, and one of them sings just like Michael Jackson, too! One wonders why any other rappers in New York even bothered to exist, or when one of them is going to pick up a guitar and open for the Ramones. Jimmy Smits hams it up like a Cuban sandwich, poor Kevin Corrigan gets sidled with one of the dumbest roles on the show, Grandmaster Flash is portrayed as a cross between Yoda and Sho Kosugi, and Lillias White plays a character who would have been laughed out of a grade-Z blaxploitation flick in 1974. Jaden Smith is lucky his dad is one of the most famous people in the world, because he can’t act his way around a pencil eraser. Nas, legitimately a great rapper, has the thankless task of reciting incredibly hokey lyrics in flash-forwards that I pray he didn’t actually write himself. And Shameik Moore has lots of promise as DJ/tagger Shaolin Fantastic, but he’s sidled with a pointless gangster plot that adds nothing to the show but serves only to artificially ramp up the stakes of the story, as if we’ll get bored if there isn’t violence in every episode. (Vinyl made this same mistake. Don’t Luhrmann and Martin Scorsese think the music business is interesting enough without tossing random murders at us?)
It’s unclear where The Get Down goes after this, or whether or not it should even bother; I can’t imagine possibly giving a shit what happens to MC Books and his gang of musical theater elves after the first season. But the show does give us something special in the sixth episode: after a terrifically silly bit where the main character gives a speech (!) at an Ed Koch rally (!!) because he’s become an intern (!!!) for a political fixer, he rushes to save the day at a Bronx DJ battle. The scene is hobbled by the fact that the Get Down Brothers are ten times more talented than every other rap posse in the city combined, but it’s still a genuinely thrilling scene. The music is terrific; Luhrmann’s visual flair actually works for once, setting the wild dancing of a typical park throwdown against the beautiful ruin of a Bronx sunset; a lot of the details, from the costumes of the rival crews to the hand skills of the DJs to the power of a booming system at a time when being loud could create the impression of being good, are exactly right; and it’s a legitimately exciting evocation of how incredibly lively and vital those early jams must have been.
The trouble is, it comes literally ten minutes before the end of the last episode, and its ultimate effect is to just leave you wondering why it couldn’t have all been like that, without all the melodramatic hokum that kept it treading water for the previous six hours? And if you can’t keep something as dynamic and alive as the birth of hip-hop from being boring and cheesy, why on Earth would anyone stick around for another six?