'The Get Down' brings infectious energy to Netflix's hip-hop history

'The Get Down' has an upside for Netflix
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'The Get Down' has an upside for Netflix 01:28

(CNN)"The Get Down" is conceptually quite simple, wrapping a quest-for-stardom story in a poetic, almost lyrical package. In keeping with the style of its co-creator, "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann, it's also a bit of a mess, although its infectious energy, young talent and period setting provide plenty of upside.

Frankly, the behind-the-scenes drama -- and the story of how the budget ballooned, in mystifying fashion, until the show had become one of Netflix's most expensive projects -- is in some ways as interesting as "The Get Down" itself. Yet strictly judging the first three episodes on their merits, Luhrmann (who directed the 90-minute premiere) and co-creator/playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis have conjured a more vibrant musical drama than HBO's recent "Vinyl," which would have seemed the more likely winner if only because of its creative pedigree.
Deftly weaving '70s music throughout, "The Get Down" opens in 1996 on a rap star in New York. The story quickly flashes back to the South Bronx in 1977, when hair was big, disco was at its height and hip-hop was just being birthed.
    Despite a scattered assortment of characters, "The Get Down" is fundamentally about a boy and a girl. Ezekiel (Justice Smith) writes poetic lyrics hoping to woo his beloved Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), a church-raised teen who yearns to become "the next Donna Summer," and given her insanely good voice, just might be.
    Soon enough, Ezekiel meets a rapper/graffiti artist who goes by the name Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), forging a grudging if tentative collaboration of writer and artist. Shaolin drags Ezekiel and his nerdy pals to the Get Down, an underground showcase presided over by Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), one of the real-life characters who cross paths with the fictional ones.
    Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito turn up as adults in Mylene's life -- Smits plays her uncle, a corrupt city councilman; Esposito is her minister father -- offering windows into the era's politics and mores, as well as how budding musical forces unsettle the older generation.
    Still, the focus is pretty squarely on the junior contingent, and Luhrmann and his collaborators (including hip-hop historian Nelson George, Nas and the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash) have done a splendid job casting those roles, with Guardiola in particular appearing destined for stardom.
    Music pulses throughout the project, giving "The Get Down" a beating heart even when it detours into the mythic, strange and surreal, including a few mildly gratuitous shootouts. When the kids talk their way into a club called Les Inferno, "Disco Inferno" blares in the background. When Mylene speaks about Donna Summer, it's accompanied by the disco queen's anthem "Bad Girls."
    While that's not especially subtle, the music provides a kind of shorthand in telling the story. It also helps "The Get Down" convey a strong sense of time and place, which extends to the clothes or talk of seeing "Star Wars" yet again. But it's rooted in a universal, timeless tale of these kids and their dreams.
    In a bit of a departure, Netflix will split the 12 episodes into two six-episode binges, a byproduct of the program's somewhat tortured production schedule. Because of the budget overruns those fits and starts accrued, the project's commercial success will likely require teams of forensic accountants to determine.
    Nevertheless, "The Get Down" could connect with a subset of Netflix subscribers not readily served by many of its other original programs by wedding its predominantly African-American and Latino cast with music and nostalgia. Under the shadowy rules of the premium-TV game, that's one of the ways a streaming star is born.
    "The Get Down" premieres August 12 on Netflix.