Musical TV

The Let Down

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

On paper, The Get Down ought to be the greatest television show of the year. It’s Netflix’s most extravagant production yet, with a whopping $120 million that has been pumped into the show. The show is acclaimed Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s television debut, and is co-created by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who has won a Pulitzer for writing Drama. If you’ve watched any of Baz Luhrmann’s films, like Moulin Rouge, or The Great Gatsby or even the nineties smash hit Romeo + Juliet, you’d know Luhrmann’s penchant for creating entire worlds, and it is no different with The Get Down. Luhrmann has brought to life, New York of the 1970s, more specifically, the neighbourhood of South Bronx, where the story is set.

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Ezekiel (Justice Smith) is an orphan who is currently under the care of his aunt, and her boyfriend. He’s a bright kid, with a special talent for poetry, but he would rather spend his time trying to win the beautiful Mylene’s (Herizen Guardiola) heart, than on academics, after all, it’s not like anyone at the Bronx is studying – the neighbourhood is plagued with poverty, corruption, gang violence and despair. Mylene wants to leave the Bronx and become a star, a disco star, but her father (Giancarlo Esposito), who is a pastor in an orthodox, Pentecostal church will not have any of it. One night, Mylene decides to sneak out of the house to participate in a dance competition at Les Infernos, the greatest disco club at the Bronx, where the winner gets to meet with a famous music producer. It is also at Les Infernos that Ezekiel has a run-in with Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a legendary graffiti artist as well as an aspiring DJ. Shaolin discovers Ezekiel’s talent with words, and takes him to “The Get Down”, an underground party in the Bronx, that’s headed by Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), one of the first pioneers of the hip-hop sound. It is here that Ezekiel realises that there is a world beyond Mylene, and the possibility that hip-hop might not only be his ticket out of Bronx, but may well pave his way to greatness.

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The Get Down is a story about music, about two young people discovering themselves through music, and about the socio-cultural impact that music has on history. It’s obvious that the story is well researched, from the music, to the clothes, to the language, to even the graffiti that is splattered across the walls. The detailing in the sets is impeccable, and the show looks every bit as expensive as it has been touted to be. The acting talent is impressive too – Justice Smith, especially, is fantastic as the sensitive poet who is torn about his future.

Theoretically, The Get Down has all the makings of a great show, but on screen, it’s just chaos. There is just way too much that is thrown at the viewer, and despite all that is happening on screen, the story never seems to get anywhere. It’s also hard to ignore the caricaturing – Shaolin wears a belt with Bruce Lee’s face on it, and there’s (vaguely) Asian sounding music that is played each time he comes on screen, not to mention the exaggerated Kung Fu fighting. I understand that they’re trying to portray someone as mythical, but this comes off like a joke. The Get Down, like any other Netflix show, is designed for binge-watching, but it’s far too arduous to even watch two episodes in a single sitting. I couldn’t go through more than three, and the very thought of three more episodes tires me. I suppose the folks at Netflix felt the same way, for only six out of the twelve episodes of the first season have been released, with the second set of episodes coming out in 2017.

The Get Down is supposed to be a story about the gritty beginnings of Hip-Hop during the age of Disco, but instead of an honest, unembellished portrayal of the genre, we get an overwhelming, cluttered, extravagant mess – a let down.

{Season 1 of The Get Down is currently streaming on Netflix}

Singing A Different Tune

The sixth and final season of Glee is presently running on television. If you were a one-time fan of the show, now is the time to get back, because this season is short, fast-paced, and full of the irreverent humour that the show was famous for. I have watched the show right from its inception in 2009, stuck to watching it despite the inevitable collapse that happened when the show’s lead actor, Cory Monteith, passed away due to a drug overdose, and cried secret tears during the finale. Glee covers the trials and tribulations of a bunch of misfits in high school, who discover themselves through song and dance. Given the premise, there is plenty of music on the show and the cast breaks into song every five minutes to express their feelings.

Although Glee rarely does original music, their covers of pop songs were, on most days, better than the original. In fact, I endured the travesties that were the fourth and fifth seasons of Glee, only for the music. Despite Glee’s shortcomings, I was convinced for a very long time that it was the most successful example of a series that mixed drama (high school drama, but drama nonetheless), with music, into one cogent, entertaining show. My opinion changed when I started watching Empire.

Glee Season 6

Empire delves deep into the hip-hop industry, its workings, and the culture, which forms its roots. I’ve never been a fan of hip-hop or rap, but Empire changed that for me because it gives context to the genre, and that makes the music much more enjoyable.

The show follows the life of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who is a drug dealer-turned-music mogul. Lucious is the head of Empire records, a company that started out from nothing, and is now poised to go public. It is at this time when he is diagnosed with ALS, a disease with no cure that will eventually lead to his death, and he realises that he must name one of his three sons as a successor before it’s too late. Lucious’ sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are vastly different from one another, and are united only by their ambition to take over Empire. Andre is a hardworking financial wizard with zero mass appeal, Hakeem is a talented but lazy rapper whose constant partying and entitled attitude comes in the way of his career, and Jamal is an immensely gifted musician, but much to his father’s distaste, is also gay. Also fighting for Empire is Cookie Lyon (Taraji Henson), Lucious’ ex-wife, who has just been released from prison after 17 years.

Empire moves at a blistering pace, with enough plot twists to make your head spin. Scorned lovers, illegitimate children, conspirators, spies and vengeful henchmen walk in and out of episodes before you have the time to register what is happening. Cookie is, undeniably, the life of the show. Played by Taraji Henson, Cookie is the ex-wife who is ready for life and hungry for success with a rare kind of panache. Cookie isn’t afraid of doing what’s right for herself and her sons, even if that means beating one of them up with a broomstick until they learn to give her respect. Some of her lines on paper, sound terribly contrived (“You want Cookie’s nookie?”), but on screen, they are magic. The other breakout star is Jussie Smollett who plays the sensitive, genius Jamal. He is completely believable in his struggle as a gay musician who is trying to gain acceptance not only from the world, but also from his father.

His voice is beautiful, and his songs in the show are poignant, beautiful and catchy. If you’re looking for a show that will entertain you, look no further than Empire. It has drama, attitude, and at times, it even has heart.

(The sixth season of Glee is being telecast on Star World)