Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Get Down finally gets its criminal element right

Illustration for article titled The Get Down finally gets its criminal element right
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When reviewing The Get Down, many critics (myself included) have focused on the show’s criminal element—its gangsters, its drug dealers, its button men—never congealing with its musical element, even though the two worlds would naturally intersect in late-’70s New York.

“One By One, Into The Dark” makes it clear that maybe it was the show’s personnel that was the issue. In the pilot episode, co-creator Baz Luhrmann handled the direction, devoting a considerable amount of screen time to Cadillac, Fat Annie, Little Wolf, and other assorted heavies who would go on to play such integral parts on the series. But for all his talent, Luhrmann’s most extensive experience with depicting gangsters onscreen is William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet—not exactly a beacon of gritty realism.

Not that the criminals on The Get Down exactly have to be realistic. But cartoonish or not, they should still feel legitimately threatening to the young artists at the center of the show. Up until this point, however, they simply haven’t. As an example, Cadillac literally killed a child early on in the series, and he’s still never come off as dangerous.

But that changes with “One By One, Into The Dark,” an episode that lives up to its foreboding title by handing the ambulance keys to a writer and director who actually have experience with grittier subject matter. In the driver’s seat is Clark Johnson, who, in addition to starring in addition to starring in David Simon vehicles such as Homicide: Life On The Street and The Wire, has directed a handful of episodes for each show (including both the pilot and finale of the latter). And that’s to say nothing of his work on The Shield, Night Heat, and Law & Order. His imdb page alone makes it clear that the guy knows how to do crime right.

The same goes for Nelson George, the filmmaker and culture critic who’s also written a trilogy of detective novels that take place in the hip-hop/R&B world. Could there be a better screenwriter to finally alchemize The Get Down’s criminal and musical storylines? Unsurprisingly, the key is scaling back. Cadillac is already such a big character, that by simply having actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II calm the fuck down in attitude and dialogue, Johnson and George are able to draw some genuine menace from his performance. When Fat Annie orders Cadillac to collaborate with The Get Down Brothers on a novelty record, he still protests with his typically colorful language, but he just says the lines without executing flamboyant body language and snorting a bump of coke up his nose from his bowie knife. Later on, Johnson keeps the framing tight and steady when, as an act of revenge towards The Get Down Brothers, Cadillac orders Little Wolf to taint Boo-Boo an Shaolin Fantastic’s supply with a bad batch of angel dust. When presented in a more sober, toned-down fashion, Cadillac’s actions suddenly feel threatening.

Following the events of last episode, Johnson and George reach a similar air of menace with most of the other adult characters on the show. When Roy nudges Mylene toward playing up her sexuality and ambition, he’s not chomping on a cigar or twiddling a nonexistent mustache. When Mr. Gunns lets his true racist colors show, he’s not adopting the faux-eloquent speech patterns delivered by the douchebags Shao and Ezekiel encountered in the bathroom. No, both of these exchanges are captured with stillness and straightforwardness, escalating the idea that all of the musicians on the show are being manipulated by forces that, for the moment, seem out of their control.


True to this theme, the boys’ dreams go off the rails in the episode’s final moments, where the laced drugs cause Dizzee and a large number of their fans to OD at a show. Between the always invigorating verses from The Get Down Brothers, Johnson cuts to assorted crowd members feeling woozy as they smoke, juxtaposing danger with musical joy. By simply placing the charismatic aspects of the show alongside the seedier ones without going over the top with either, he’s able to mix them more successfully than any director on the series who’s come before him. Much like Shao manning his wheels of steel, he and George are able to combine two sides of The Get Down that, until now, have remained stubbornly disparate.

Stray observations

  • Robert Stigwood is indeed a real producer, who died only last year. I wonder if he’ll make an appearance as a character on The Get Down.
  • Whenever a shot is followed by archival footage, it takes on a grainy quality right before the cut. It’s a nice trick that always makes for a seamless transition, making it hard to tell what scenes are historical and which ones were created specifically for the show.
  • “She be like Dino from The Flintstones. But black.”
  • Kudos to Nelson George for having Fat Annie bring up Pigmeat Markham as a somewhat accidental pioneer of hip-hop. Here’s the song she’s playing in case anyone wants to re-listen: