The Get Down isn’t like other musicals.
It’s got the pace and the patter of a staged production, but no one really sings in the 90-minute first episode of the new Netflix series. One character does, but it’s a facet of the story: she wants to be a singer.
Music is integral to the DNA of this tale about growing up in The Bronx during the late 1970s. Co-creator Baz Luhrmann infuses The Get Down with his trademark sense of operatic spectacle, and the music which is largely background soundtrack is a critical component.
Part 1 of the series the first six episodes, out of 12 premieres Friday. We thought it would be fun to look at the opening episode through the lens of some of its musical selections and consider the role that music plays.
“Rule the World (I Came from the City)” / Michael Kiwanuka ft. Nas
The Get Down opens on Madison Square Garden’s stage in 1996 as Mr. Books one of the shows stars, all grown up steps up to the mic to perform “Rule the World (I Came from the City).”
A collaboration between Michael Kiwanuka and Nasir “Nas” Jones created especially for the series, Mr. Books’ rap sets up the stories as scenes from the opening episode play behind it. In capital-M Musical terms, this is our overture.
“The Rubberband Man” / The Spinners
Welcome to 1977 New York City. The Spinners anthemic 1976 hit provides the backbeat for our first real glimpse of The Get Down‘s Bronx streets.
We’ve already met two of our leads in the preceding scene, where Zeke (Justice Smith) records a demo of his friend and crush Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) singing in her father’s church. Mylene wants to get out of the Bronx and make it big, and she sees this tape as her way out.
The Spinners track follows immediately after, setting up the stage this story will play out on. It’s a colorful, astonishingly authentic recreation of the Big Apple’s northernmost borough during one of the most turbulent periods in its real history.
“Shining Star” / Earth, Wind & Fire
Zeke wants to be with Mylene but she isn’t interested. Her mind is on the future, and getting out of New York. That’s why Mylene and her girlfriends have evening plans to visit Les Inferno, a shady, gangster-owned disco club where the evening’s star DJ, Malibu, might give her the break she’s been looking for.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s legendary classic “Shining Star” plays while Mylene rebuffs Zeke’s advances. The song’s memorable refrain “You’re a shinig star, no matter who you are / Shining bright to see what you can truly be” speaks directly to Mylene’s hoped-for future.
“Bad Girls” / Donna Summer
Donna Summer’s #1 hit single from 1979 pops up a couple times during the same episode, and always for the same reason: Mylene and her two besties are up to no good.
The first time we hear “Bad Girls,” it’s behind a scene in which Mylene’s pastor father, Ramon Cruz (Giancarlo Esposito), scolds his daughter for bringing her “Devil music” into his church when she recorded her demo.
The song continues as Mylene heads out to the street to commiserate with her friends about her Les Inferno plan-killing punishment: a 10pm curfew. But these are “bad girls,” right? She’s going to break that curfew.
“Vitamin C” / Can
Another of the recurring “theme songs” in The Get Down‘s first episode, “Vitamin C” represents a break from the rest of the rap, funk and R&B-heavy soundtrack. Can, the band behind “Vitamin C,” was one of the early Krautrock greats, known for its psychedelic and often funky sounds.
In the context of The Get Down, the song seems have a connection with Marcus ‘Dizzee’ Kipling (Jaden Smith), one of three brothers in Zeke’s circle of friends. Dizzee is an up-and-coming graffiti artist, and “Vitamin C” opens into a subway station huddle he’s having with a group of fellow artists.
The subject of their chat? Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), a legendary (fictional) tagger. “His Pumas are always pristine. His hands are samurai swords,” Dizzee says. “And his pieces? They’re all fireworks.”
Shaolin is mysterious figure through most of the first episode, but he’s integral to Zeke’s story. This first episode details the origin of their friendship.
“Wild in the Streets” / Garland Jeffreys
“Wild in the Streets,” a bouncing 1973 tune from singer/songwriter Garland Jeffreys, was directly inspired by crime in the Bronx. It’s used in The Get Down to set up Zeke and Shaolin’s first encounter.
Zeke visits a hole-in-the-wall record store to pick up a rare remix of Mylene’s favorite song. He wants to bring it to Les Inferno and convince Malibu to play it, hoping to sweep Mylene off her feet in the process with the romantic gesture.
Unfortunately for Zeke, the record is also same one Shaolin’s mysterious mentor who turns out to be Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) has sent his protg to retrieve.
The two don’t so much meet as cross paths. Zeke arrives at the store just moments before the local Savage Warlords gang shows up to shake down the owner. Shaolin uses the distraction to snatch the record out of Zeke’s hands and run, but loses the record back to Zeke when he drops it off the side of a building.
“Cadillac” / Miguel
One of the newer songs featured in The Get Down, Miguel’s “Cadillac” introduces the man it is named for: the gangster, Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose crime boss mother Fat Annie owns Les Inferno.
Cadillac is a sharp-dressed smooth talker who has a reputation for anointing the winners of the club’s regular dance-offs. They dance with him, they win. Then Cadillac takes them to a hotel for a different kind of dance.
He’s also Mylene’s best chance of getting her tape into the hands of Malibu, whose music label was financed by Cadillac.
While much of “Cadillac” is a bit too modern for The Get Down, Miguel’s disco breaks mesh seamlessly with the crowded, clubby atmosphere of Les Inferno.
“Devil’s Gun” / CJ & Company
The lengthy Les Inferno scene is filled with classic disco cuts including an extended dance sequence to The Fatback Band’s “Are You Ready (Do the Bus Stop)” but we’re giving the nod here to “Devil’s Gun.”
The 1977 disco hit by CJ & Company initially provides the beat for Les Inferno’s dance-off, with Zeke playing for Mylene’s affections while Cadillac makes his own move. The scene quickly devolves into chaos, however, when the Savage Warlords arrive to shoot up the place.
The parallels between music and story are fairly surface-level here: the scene needs a disco track, and CJ & Company’s song overtly references the violence that caps off our time in Les Inferno.
“Apache (Grandmaster Flash Mix)” / Incredible Bongo Band
Finally we get to the moment the series is named for: the Get Down.
This secret Bronx party serves as the setting of the opening episode’s climax, where Shaolin introduces Zeke and his friends to the dawning hip-hop culture that will eventually roll over New York’s disco scene.
And the first thing we hear? The famed Grandmaster Flash mix of “Apache” by Incredible Bongo Band, one of the most recognizable and widely sampled cuts in hip-hop history. There’s really nothing else that would fit for this introduction to The Get Down‘s true focus: the human side of the birth of hip-hop.
“Rule the World” / Michael Kiwanuka
The first episode closes with a trip back to 1996. Mr. Books has his back to the crowd, and he’s crying after performing the intensely personal cut that opened the episode.
Michael Kiwanuka’s original version of “Rule the World” plays behind the scene, providing the episode with a powerful coda that beckons directly back to the opening moments.