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The Get Down finale is hip-hop’s answer to “Jungleland”

Illustration for article titled The Get Down finale is hip-hop’s answer to “Jungleland”
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When I first heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” as a ten-year-old, it sounded gritty. It sounded real. It sounded like the heart of youth, an accurate portrayal of what it was like to be young, in love, and obsessed with music.

As I got older, I realized that wasn’t exactly the case. Teenagers don’t congregate on turnpikes and in alleys to use their artistic skills as a means of combat. They don’t fight with opera and ballet. They don’t flash guitars like switchblades. “Jungleland” is and was fabulist fiction.

But did that make it any less real? Any less authentic? Of course not. And that’s something I didn’t realize until I was well out of college. Because when you’re a kid, a guitar can be as deadly and powerful as a switchblade. The arts do seem like a matter of life and death; a defense mechanism against the more heartbreaking aspects of human life. The Get Down is fabulist, too. It always has been. Anyone who’s stuck with the show this long has had to accept that. And much like the kids in “Jungleland,” the kids in the first-season finale, “Only From Exile Can You Come Home,” brandish hip-hop like a weapon to take down their rivals.

When you describe all of this from a practical standpoint, the plot doesn’t hold water: To free themselves from the clutches of gangsters Fat Annie and her disco-loving son, Cadillac, The Get Down Brothers organize a hip-hop block party of epic proportions, anchored by the holy rap trinity of Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Grandmaster Caz, as well as an army of fans, b-boys, and members of the Universal Zulu Nation led by Afrika Bambaataa. When they all perform a show-stopping set (even by Get Down standards) and radiate their message of unity to Cadillac, he lowers his gun, goes home with his head hung in shame, and vows to follow his own musical dreams full-time. You keep expecting him to go back on his word and gun down his enemies, but it never happens. The Get Down Brothers are free to land their own record deal from the ballsy move and get to live like kings—for a time.

It’s an overblown and sentimental—yet still inspiring—narrative, and the show knows this. That’s why the subsequent glory from the showdown is animated. As if one of Dizzee’s comics has come to life, the cartoon versions of The Get Down Brothers lounge about in a literal palace, fully taken over by their fantasy alter egos (Dizzee as the alien in a top hat, Boo-Boo as a tricked-out pimp, Shaolin Fantastic as a samurai, etc.).

But to go back to “Jungleland” for a moment, there’s another element to the song—perhaps the most crucial part of what may be The Boss’ magnum opus. Somewhere around the six-minute mark, after the final note of Clarence Clemons’ iconic sax solo has faded into the night, the bombast gives way to Roy Bittan’s mournful piano. Suddenly, the street fight and the musical struggles are no longer poetic. The main character gets murdered and the romance fades. The real world—the adult world—overtakes the imaginary one.

The exact same thing happens on The Get Down. The police raid the Brothers’ headquarters and haul away Boo-Boo for dealing drugs. The animation melts away to reveal flesh and blood, and the group comes to an end. Then, in the series’ most gut-wrenching scene, Ezekiel chews out Shao for introducing Boo-Boo to a life of crime that’s now ruined them all, disgusted that they’ve all allowed themselves to live in a fantasy world of zulus, aliens, and martial artists for so long. But for Shaolin—a kid who’s never had anyone to look out for him—that’s all he’s ever had as a source of comfort. That’s why he’s never revealed that his real name is Curtis; he prefers to live under his superhero alias. The fantasy is his reality, or at least a salve to help him cope with the often unforgiving real world.

And so the first season of The Get Down ends in a sobering fashion that I truly never saw coming. For the bulk of the show’s run so far, I and many other critics lambasted the series for not being self-aware enough of its own messiness—and rightfully so. There have been plenty of times when the story has buckled under its own fabulist nature. But in its final moments, the series justifies all the exaggerating and jumping around by recognizing that its events have always been seen through the unreliable eyes of inner-city teens—the same types of beaten down yet idealistic characters Springsteen sympathized with in “Jungleland.”

It’s a fascinating trick that’s more than enough to keep me eager for a second season. As these same people approach adulthood, will the show retain the resigned tone it took on in the final scene of “Only From Exile Can We Come Home”? Even though Mylene is well on her way to superstardom, she knows that she’s leaving a lot behind, including (possibly) her relationship with Ezekiel. Likewise, while Zeke is headed to Yale and his studio rap career begins in earnest after an engineer overhears his poetry, there’s something less celebratory about the whole affair, at least when compared to his old-school rhymes with The Get Down Brothers. He and Mylene are both achieving their dreams, but it’s impossible to be wholly happy about everything.

In that way, The Get Down could be positioning itself as a document of the evolution of hip-hop—fabulist or not. There’s a reason Ezekiel’s adult rhymes are so much more introspective and, at times, somber than the verses he wrote in the late ‘70s. It’s not just that he’s a grown older—hip-hop’s grown older, too. The genre was still in its infancy when he and his friends started practicing their craft, lyrically preoccupied with boasting, dancing, and partying. All of those traits still exist in hip-hop today, but they’re explored alongside a sense of introspection and realism. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, that wasn’t always the case. If we do get another season of The Get Down (and after this second half, I certainly hope we do), perhaps we’ll continue to see not just how the characters have grown up, but how hip-hop has grown up as well.

Stray observations

  • Sorry, I know the image for this review is from two episodes ago, but it’s been challenging to find hi-res photos for each installment.
  • I don’t know whether it was intentional or a result of actors’ conflicting schedules, but I’m glad that the show didn’t linger on the fates of Shaolin Fantastic and the Kipling Brothers. If Ezekiel’s going on to bigger things, it makes sense that his fellow musicians would be relics of his past—perhaps never seen in person by him again. Then again, if the show does get renewed, I have a hard time believing we’ve seen the last of Zeke’s friends…
  • …unless Dizzee got hit by a train, that is. What do the rest of you think? Is he dead or alive? Or are the writers simply giving themselves an out in case Jaden Smith can’t return for another season?
  • Hell yeah, Kevin Corrigan! His new ballad beats the hell out of “Toy Box.”
  • So were Ezekiel’s vocalists actually supposed to be Mylene and The Soul Madonnas, or were they just regular backup singers and Zeke was sampling The Madonnas’ song? Or was he imagining them altogether? I’m fine with any of those options.
  • I love that Robert Stigwood’s artistic revelation leads to him producing Staying Alive. He should have stuck with Gone With The Solar Wind.