I haven’t been keeping up with The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot for a mix of reasons – it’s been movies that I mostly haven’t seen except Throne of Blood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which normally wouldn’t stop me but I’ve been ungodly swamped in work and school to keep me from having time to watch those movies, I’m still using a computer that has so little memory in it that if I told you the amount you’d wonder how it can even run its CPU and I still have no clue how to do screencaps on it. As well as my hopes to leave enough material to jump back on to making it a YouTube series again when I have an editing computer again.
But I saw Nathaniel R. picked the pilot episode of the new Stephen Adly Guigus/Baz Luhrmann/Nas (yes, that Nas) Netflix series The Get Down (the most expensive Netflix pilot to date) and there was no way I was going to miss it. I didn’t buy into the Stranger Things hype very much. It probably doesn’t help that I’m immune to 80s nostalgia. But I’m very much not immune to the mythologizing of the 70s. I’m also not immune to the mythologizing of hip hop. Nor the mythologizing of New York City (I’m sure I may have slipped that it is my favorite city in this country and maybe one of my favorite places in the world). Especially not the mythologizing of East Coast hip hop birthed in pre-Giuliani New York at the end of the 70s, mixed in with motherfucking disco to a point that I can enjoy it as atmosphere without being suffocated by it like I’m watching a Cannon production.
Most importantly, I’m far from immune to Baz Luhrmann’s excessive style of design and direction where in this case he attempts to apply a more grounded form of his Moulin Rouge! for an era and place that could still be remembered by people who weren’t even there and channels it brilliantly into mixing period piece and bombastic celebration of music and progress and dreams. At the same time Luhrmann provided a much more tonally faithful adaptation of Romeo and Juliet than even his 1996 film based on the Shakespeare work (the only Luhrmann film I don’t care for). I’m especially not immune to Stephen Adly Guirgus who is, in my opinion, one of the most talented stage writers of the contemporary era.
It was absolutely the most I ever found myself excited for a Netflix series yet and I decided the moment my friend showed me the trailer in New York earlier this summer that I was gonna watch its pilot the moment it played (unfortunately, I didn’t. I was in the middle of helping out a local film festival and didn’t have time until later that weekend).
Luhrmann always knew how to take pre-existing stories with not an ounce of originality to them (to the point that you could pinpoint what is ripped-off from where) and twist them into bold and bright new looks into the versatility of storytelling and how you could shake things up without changing anything. In The Get Down, what really makes me crazy is how he does it for places and people now. Grandmaster Flash is a larger-than-life figure of fucking legend and we’re meant to look upon him like a Japanese Shogun (especially Shaolin Fantastic is talking about different territories belonging to Flash, Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and so on). The streets are a maze from which to evade the gangs – all dangerous, all out for themselves. The disco halls are both a crime den haven and a magical source of light, music, love, and magic. Even then the halls don’t have both the aggressiveness and freedom of an old school block party.
And keep in mind, it doesn’t feel extra. We’re not looking at a very grandiose piece of work, though it’s very ambitious. But it’s nevertheless exhilarating, even despite it being the most low-key thing Luhrmann has done since Strictly Ballroom and I’d dare to call it even more low-key than that. It works as an argument against the idea that Luhrmann needs garish spectacle to get away with broad emotions (though his editing hasn’t slowed down much, but I like his editing style so… jog on.)
So when Nathaniel asks for a best shot, my response to him has to be “Motherfucker, how about Best Shots in plural?!”. Because I know what my Best Shot is (and knew it even when I was first watching it – playing this game has often made me pick my best shot in movies without even thinking) but my fucking god, it’s too brilliant to not share moments I was digging so much.
Like this obviously superimposed shot yet potent shot in the middle of Shaolin Fantastic’s (Shameik Moore) chase from the Savage Warlords gang as both implying the heat of the moment (Shao’s gonna have to jump across to another building) and portraying the growing bankruptcy of New York as a city.
Or the absolute lack of subtlety the show has in portraying a do-or-die moment our diehard romantic poet of a protagonist Zeke (Justice Smith) is given, once again by using the decay of the city, though there’s some obnoxiously obvious lighting going on towards the left side of the frame.
The way Luhrmann can’t help himself from having at least one “part the seas” romantic moment between Zeke and his foil Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola, who unfortunately makes little impression as anything other than a love interest in this pilot. The second episode, though… one word: breakout. Do not hesitate to see it). Complete with colors and dancing and punctuated by a kiss.
Or the fact that no matter what, the villainous disco gangster still has to be the sexiest motherfucker on the spot. Hence why Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is – by an unfairly large margin even over Moore – my favorite performance on the show as Cadillac, he’s way too much fun every time we see him, even in his despicability and his complete anger every time Shao happens to be in the same room as him.
Or how even domestic scenes can be absolutely obvious in their imagery and themes because Luhrmann knows subtlety is for people who want to be more than just moved and that’s not what his work is about.
Or how when a character is important, he has to frame everything and have it all feel like the energy of the moment is coming from him because ladies and gentleman, that Grandmaster Motherfucking Flash (Mamoudou Athie) and if you don’t know him, stop listening to hip hop (the shot is a lot more fun in motion).
But hell, I said I had a best shot from square one, didn’t I? And I do. And it all revolves around a character I already introduced you to.
Shaolin Fantastic (once again I’m gonna specify he’s played by Shameik Moore) is charismatic as shit to the point that we love him before we even see his face. He’s the first name we hear in the rap concert frame narrative, he’s the most physical character around as he runs and flips and jumps and races, he’s considered a saint of graffiti art (Jaden Smith’s performance in this show is the first time his juvenile profundity is actual given a worthy cushion, largely in the form of his hero worship for Shao) but he wants to be a great DJ instead, and Moore just wants to steal the scene from any moment he can. And he does for the most part, he has tremendous chemistry with every single character he interacts with whether amiably (Zeke, Flash, Fat Annie) or antagonistically (Cadillac, Mylene, Boo-Boo). I tried to watch Moore’s theatrical film debut in Dope but couldn’t finish it. Thankfully, The Get Down covered me with just how much Moore was capable of as an actor and if this does not make him a star, I am going to be very very disappointed.
As characters, Zeke and Shao make a great team of one character’s vulnerable humanity and romanticism and the other’s pure spectacle and energy as the rapper and DJ eager to be the next hip hop lords (Justice Smith is kind of the weakest of the ensemble but he still has hella electricity when he shares scenes with Moore), and yet the show is aware of which character is more attractive to us. Despite establishing Zeke as the protagonist, Shao is the motherfucker we keep coming to see. That’s why Shao gets his first speaking scene with a hero shot:
Backlit and all (the whole scene is gorgeously backlit and had me wondering if it was a studio shot or the sun truly was on their side), so all eyes are on his frame. Even while Flash is speaking to Shao (and is in the shot himself), we don’t care to look at him. The shot gives all its focus on the man standing in the middle ready to bust it. You don’t give a shot like that at the earliest moment we meet him without knowing that it’ll be the audience’s favorite dude.
And it’s even more fun when he leaves.
P.S. (and sort of a Pilot SPOILER if you want to watch the pilot before this)
I didn’t think the pilot could possibly make me love it more than I already did and then its penultimate shot reveals MOTHERFUCKING DAVEED DIGGS FROM HAMILTON IS PLAYING ZEKE in the future.