Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Get Down (Episode 1)

I've been reticent to participate in the TV episodes of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. Often, a film's best shot won't become apparent to me until the whole thing is over, when the conclusion has been reached and all the film's themes have come fully into view. But an episode of TV is just one big piece of a whole - the show's most important themes may not fully snap into place until the very last episode, or at the very least the last episode of any particular season. So I always shied away from doing them. Until now, when our benevolent overlord has assigned us the first episode of Netflix's new series The Get Down. Why, you ask? Well, it just so happens the series was co-created by mad Aussie genius Baz Luhrmann (director of Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Australia, and of course, Moulin Rouge!), and he also directed the first episode. I will follow Luhrmann ANYWHERE, but if he's going to the Bronx in the 1970s to chart the creation of hip hop? DONE AND DONE. TAKE MY MONEY. FEED MY EYEBALLS NOW.

I don't think there's another filmmaker alive today who so gets the full-on rush of adolescence AND the act of creation on the same level as Luhrmann, and I have been dying to see what he would do in a more grounded, less fantastical setting. So I was very eager to watch The Get Down. Even after the very mixed reviews - Luhrmann tends to inspire love-or-hate reactions. But then I actually watched it.

There's no two ways around it: The Get Down is an unholy mess of a thing. BUT - and this is a VERY BIG but - somehow the mess feels right. It's been reported that production on The Get Down started before the creative team really knew exactly what it was, and the first episode especially reflects that. But on the other hand, you can see exactly WHY it was so difficult for them to get a handle on just what it was they were creating. Music - and hip-hop in particular - is so tied to the culture of its creation that you can't just make it about the music. You have to also explore the community in which it was created. And hip hop - as far as I understand it - was basically birthed in 1970s New York, one of the wildest, most sprawling, multi-faceted communities ever. So by necessity, you have to have all these additional elements - cultural, political, economic, religious - because they are embedded in the very fabric of the story you're trying to tell. And given the amount of time you have to tell a story in a TV show, you can actually delve into all those elements.

So The Get Down may be a mess, but it's a necessary mess, and it is BEAUTIFUL within that mess.

But I had the exact problem I had predicted with attempting to choose a Best Shot from the 90-minute pilot episode: Which of the show's myriad elements is going to really take off after this first episode? Is it going to be the young love story between young poet/nascent rapper Ezekiel and daughter of a preacher man/wannabe disco diva Mylene? The political corruption subplot with Jimmy Smitts? The criminal underbelly of the world headed by Lilias White's Fat Annie? The coming-of-age story that connects all the teenagers? Or the magical realism that spreads throughout the pilot but is most apparent during the scenes with hustler/sometime graffiti artist/aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic?

I've now watched three episodes of The Get Down, and it's still a bit of a mess, but I think I know where the heart of the series lies, and what makes it special. The Get Down is completely unlike anything else on TV, and what contributes most to that is the show's elements of magical realism. They're spread out throughout each episode, but they're important. Music is what connects most of the main characters (if not all of them), and it mainly serves as an escape from the oppressive nature of their world. Their community is basically a ghetto, with buildings burning down and funding for firefighters disappearing, plus it's summer, when the city gets hot, sweaty, sticky, and cramped - when nature itself is at its most oppressive. Music provides an oasis of cool and calm, and when it appears, the series becomes something new, something different. The feeling of those sequences is unlike anything else I've ever seen, but I couldn't find one shot in the pilot that sums them up. But there is this shot:

It's a little hard to tell in this screengrab, so click and make it bigger. This is the main crew (dubbed The Fantastic Four Plus One by Shaolin Fantastic) walking home late, late at night. Past a burnt-out vacant lot, by the light of various solitary streetlamps. It almost looks like something out of a fantasy, except it's not. This is all too real. But the magical feeling of making music together at an underground DJ session/rap battle infuses the very air with something extra, making the might feel magical, maybe even a little beautiful. Finding something deep in your soul like that, connecting with others when the world outside is unfriendly and harsh and hot, can make even the deadest of dead end streets look like the most beautiful place in the world, and Luhrmann (and DP William Rexer) captures that to perfection in this shot.

No comments:

Post a Comment