Looking For The Perfect Beat But This Ain’t It – The Get Down

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Baz Luhrmann’s swirling, sprawling new series for Netflix, The Get Down, came with such promise.

One of the channel’s most expensive series treads on fertile ground, chronicling the black and latino generation who revolutionised music by breaking from disco to invent hip-hop, and set against the tinderbox background of the Bronx in the late 1970s. This is vast, dramatically untapped territory, and it’s an important point in cultural history.

Rather than a straightforward drama, the show, created by Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, tries to edge towards the wild, freewheeling and highly theatrical approach Luhrmann has used in films like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Sometimes this works, the sense of mythologising feels note perfect against the backbeat of hip hop, and during the musical numbers it hits an undeniable, infectious energy, and of course the soundtrack is blistering.

Unfortunately, and all too frequently, the theatricality feels like a let’s-just-put-the-show-on-right-here high school play, and distances us from the hollow, one dimensional characters – youngsters fighting against familial and societal barriers to realise their dreams. It’s mythology writ small, rather than large.

The cast try hard, injecting spirit into their roles (particularly Justice Smith, Herizen F. Guardiola and Shameik Moore, who manages to make his character likeable despite being saddled with some seriously irritating whirling dervish mannerisms) but they’re swimming hard against the tide of bombast and cliche. If you think Martin Scorsese & Mick Jagger’s Vinyl lacked depth, you’ll find much of this thinner than a 1980s flexi-disc.

Ironically, and particularly in the pilot episode, it feels like a show at war with itself, neither theatrical enough or dramatic enough, leaving it stranded in the middle of the dancefloor making some particularly awkward moves.

The show does seem to stand a little steadier on its feet by the last episode, so perhaps there’s hope for the next six episodes (which will air next year) but right now it feels like too little, too late. I went into this with a palpable sense of excitement, but found myself mostly unmoved.

This is a story waiting to be told and a record waiting to be spun, but Luhrmann and Netflix have skipped the groove on this one.

Uncle Bill and Isao Tomita

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I’ll always be grateful to Uncle Bill. I grew up in a block of flats, surrounded by a lovely, close-knit set of neighbours and my favourite amongst them all was Bill Bartlett who, with his wife Connie, lived directly below us. Bill and Connie loved music, particularly Barry White, and they had a big sheepskin rug in front of their fireplace – which they always intimated they made love on while listening to the Walrus of Love.

Uncle Bill, as I affectionately called him, was a cultured man who introduced me to art, photography and music, he would help me with my homework and we would listen to jazz, soul and electronica. Isao Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing (based on the work of Claude Debussy) was released in 1974 and Uncle Bill adored it, playing it endlessly as we sat on their balcony, flitting between my schoolwork and books of photography (and cheekily allowing me a cold glass of beer if it was a hot summer evening – I was about twelve or thirteen, these were different times).

Tomita, of course, was one of the pioneers of electronic music and a hugely influential and important figure in the worlds of  music, film and animation. He composed the theme song and incidental music for Osamu Tezuka’s animated television series Jangaru Taitei (Jungle Emperor), released in the West (albeit not with Tomita’s theme music) as Kimba, The White Lion. He also created music for films and television shows such as Catastrophe 1999, The Prophecies of Nostradamus (U.S. title: Last Days of Planet Earth), Zatoichi and Mighty Jack, and in the wake of Snowflakes Are Dancing, released a number of classically themed albums of electronica, including Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Uncle Bill passed away several years ago, having left a vast, indelible mark on my life, and now Isao Tomita, one of the pioneers of electronic music, has joined him. I hope the two of them are sharing a cold beer together, somewhere as warm and loved as the very special place they inhabit in my memories.