Does The Get Down Need Its Gangsters?

(Episode 1.03 “Darkness is Your Candle" and Episode 1.04, “Forget Safety, Be Notorious”)

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Does <i>The Get Down</i> Need Its Gangsters?

If the first two episodes of The Get Down left you puzzling over Cadillac and Fat Annie’s necessity to its intersecting plots, let it be known that the riddle of their presence will bedevil you still in episodes three and four. The best arguments for involving them in the life and times of Shaolin Fantastic/Shaolin/Shao, Ezekiel/Zeke/Books, and Mylene (who gets shortchanged in the nickname department) are thus: As a big, brash genre cocktail made up of teen comedy, teen romance, period-centric world-building, musical interludes, the coming of age, and family static, The Get Down has room enough for a side helping of “gangster movie,” especially since that movie means begets the casting of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Lillias White.

Writing about both actors in the context of need is painful, because they’re just terrific to watch. White oozes mirthful predation that suggests she’s as pleased with herself as a cat playing with a doomed mouse; Abdul-Mateen II keeps himself wound up and ready either to bust a move or to put his enemies in the dirt. They’re good fun, but they’re the kind of excess icing Baz Luhrmann loves to slather over his cakes after they’ve already been decorated. The Get Down has drama a-plenty, organic drama, without the introduction of gangsters. Zeke’s parents are dead, and he’s caught between the love he has for his girl and the love he has for his friends. Mylene’s dreams of musical stardom clash with her fundamentalist upbringing, manifested in her father, the agent of her confinement. Do you need more than that, even when the “more” is as singularly great as White and as Abdul-Mateen II?

If there’s a “but” to insert here, it’s that neither Cadillac nor Annie take up much real estate in “Darkness is Your Candle” or “Forget Safety, Be Notorious,” which just reinforces the idea of their obsolescence. Here, we observe the fallout of The Get Down’s pilot, “Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope for a Treasure,” and its follow up, “Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames,” as Mylene moves in with the Kiplings after her shocking confrontation with her dad, and the Fantastic Four Plus One’s numbers have dwindled into a potential lawsuit with Marvel. Adults factor into The Get Down, most of all Ramon and Francisco, but the story’s perspective primarily levels with its younger characters. They are the element that root us in Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis’ vision of New York. As long as the show is about them, even when they aren’t on screen, the show works.

Case in point: Zeke, Dizzee, Ra-Ra, and Boo-Boo run afoul of Grandmaster Flash and his brute squad when they use a bootlegged tape of a Flash show for their own ends, while Mylene’s soul is fought over by Francisco, her mom, Lydia (Zabryna Guevara), and Jackie Moreno, Mylene’s producer, a man with a coke habit so ferocious that he makes Doctor Rockso look like a tourist. “Darkness is Your Candle” and “Forget Safety, Be Notorious” devote time enough to The Get Down’s veteran cast members, but they almost exclusively fret and fuss and fume over their youthful counterparts. The time we spend with Aunt Wanda and Uncle Leon, and with Zeke’s teacher, Ms. Green (Yolanda Ross), is time that’s dependent on Zeke. The time we spend with Jackie, Ramon, Francisco, and Lydia hinges on Mylene. (This is especially true of Francisco and Lydia. The telling and heartbreaking dance they share together in “Darkness is Your Candle” marks one of The Get Down’s emotional high points.)

So with Zeke and Mylene’s personal conflicts being what they are, does The Get Down really need to stuff a dead kid’s corpse in the back of the Shaftmobile? Probably not. Definitely not. But as Zeke and his pals try to outrun Grandmaster Flash’s goons, plus every crew in the neighborhood (because who knew that stealing other people’s shit and passing it off as your own is a major party foul?), and as Mylene labors endlessly, and perhaps fruitlessly, to see her hopes become reality, The Get Down finds less and less room for Cadillac and Annie to surface. When they do, it’s inconsequential. Leon, a handyman, gets hired to fix up Les Inferno, and he takes Zeke along to teach him about honest work. Cadillac, as Cadillac does, shows up, acts like a dick, and, on recognizing Zeke, demands he surrender Mylene’s digits. In a show where Cadillac mattered, their exchange would go somewhere. It doesn’t. (But Abdul-Mateen II knows how to leave a room with style, so hey, there’s that.)

C’est la vie. Life, and The Get Down, move on, circling ever around to Zeke and Mylene’s relationship, which blossoms in “Darkness is Your Candle” and then withers in “Forget Safety, Be Notorious,” all the while couching itself in the travails of 1977 New York. Blackouts and mayoral races are the show’s window dressing, though. More important than how The Get Down fits its characters into its setting is why, though, and more important than that are the characters themselves. As honesty and integrity are to hip hop, so they are to The Get Down as a character-driven narrative, where plot comes in second place to the growth of its principals.

Bonus Observations & Quotes From “Darkness is Your Candle” & “Forget Safety, Be Notorious”:

Can you picture Jackie being played by anyone other than Kevin Corrigan? The guy was born to play twitchy, shady wrecks. Jackie’s delirious, cartoonish dope spiral might be his masterpiece.

The Get Down emphasizes character above all else, but exploring the formation of hip hop, not just its music but its ideology and lifestyle, comes in a close second. Authenticity and truth are meaningful themes here, for good reason. People don’t go crate-digging just so their tunes can be bootlegged, and don’t conflate the former for the latter. (There’s probably an entire feature to mine from The Get Down’s fundamental stance on individuality in hip hop.)

If you wondered at the unspoken meaning hinted at in Ramon’s conversation with Francisco in “Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames,” wonder no longer. The reveal that Ramon did time doesn’t excuse battering Mylene, but now we at least can confirm where his zeal for keeping her “safe” originates from. (What a scene, what a scene.)

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.