Could it be that Hollywood has discovered (or is remembering) that  #blacklivesmatter?  Two of the splashiest, flashiest visual stylists in Hollywood looked back at watershed years in recent African-American history in 2016. Ryan Murphy, known for female-driven TV series like Glee and American Horror Story examined the state of race relations in America through the OJ Simpson murder trial in The People vs O.J. Simpson. Now Baz Luhrmann, the Australian-born director of pop-chart musicals like The Great Gatsby dives deep into the Bronx of 1977 to examine the origins of hip-hop culture.

Murphy’s surprisingly nuanced take on the Simpson case eschewed the tawdriness one might expect from the producer of the transgressive American Horror Story series. He connected the dots from Watts’ blight to the notorious not guilty verdict. Luhrmann’s vision of the Bronx fits the expectations of a director who fancies musicals. The birthplace of hip-hop is rendered as a West Side Story remake with a cornball attitude and a dash of Footloose tossed in. It’s broad and fun at times but might have worked better as a two-hour feature than as a collection of one-hour episodes.

Ext. The Bronx – 1977

The first hour of the 12-episode journey is packed with introductions. We meet what will become the Fantastic Four +1 Crew (one of many nods to real life early rap groups). Ezekiel (Justice Smith) is a promising student with a bent for poetry who is on the verge of succumbing to the base desires of the New York streets. He meets cute with his future DJ, Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), an all-around street hustler who is down with Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) and a mob moll named Fat Annie (Lillias White). Dizzee (Jaden Smith), a doped up graffiti artist and his brother Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) round out the four; their youngest brother Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr) is the plus one.

Ezekiel has lines of poetry for the inevitable preacher’s daughter who wants to sing disco, Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola). Her uncle is Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits), a local Boriqua politician with a heart of gold and thirsty pockets.

It’s all in the get down

There isn’t much you need to know about the plot. Shaolin introduces Ezekiel and his young rubes to the burgeoning rap scene of 1977 at an underground party called The Get Down. They all of a sudden want to become rap stars, and after an 8 Mile-style freestyle rap battle, Ezekiel becomes a respected MC. Mylene needs to escape from her overbearing father (Giancarlo Esposito) to achieve her dreams and has to go through her uncle to do so.

Luhrmann appears super sensitive about getting the details right. It’s appropriate; the only other musical genre where authenticity looms so large is punk. To that end, he enlisted the help of rap historian Nelson George and the rap superstar Nas as producers (George also wrote the first episode). They make sure to include the emphasis on the “four corners” of hip-hop: breaking (b-boying), DJing, rapping, and graffiti.

It’s the art of DJing and rapping that Luhrmann gives special reverence. They treat the skills of the trade with a Zen mysticism. Shaolin’s chosen name makes it obvious (though his obsession with Bruce Lee, true to the culture, hammers the point home). Flash refers to his pupil as “grasshopper,” and he teaches the art of turntablism with the ‘70s TV ideas of what it’s like to learn a martial art. Shaolin behaves as if he’s one of the Shaw Brothers’ deadly young weapons, wearing a bright red leather Member’s Only jacket as armor, flipping, and dashing while never getting his bright red Puma Suedes dirty.

It isn’t all fun and games. This is the Bronx, and the borough of that era was a burnt out husk of a city. Gang violence and crime were the results of years of municipal neglect. Francisco Cruz is presented as the wily New York politico who wants to change all that.

First, Cruz (and the Fantastic Four +1) will have to extricate themselves from the turf war between the street gang Savage Warlords and Fat Annie’s crew. That war is never too far from Ezekiel and his people. Shaolin is constantly fighting between the reality of the rough streets and the desire to live his dreams.

Tupac’s Shadow

Shaolin and Ezekiel are portrayed as the two sides of Tupac Shakur. Ezekiel is the romantic who would write endearing songs about his mother, while Shaolin is the kind of kid who would get Thug Life tattooed across his belly. However, Moore’s Shaolin has all the charm that made Tupac a legend. The other characters are one note; Dizzee acts befitting his name. His brothers are nearly anonymous, though the older one has a habit of lecturing Ezekiel on all things.

The more seasoned actors enjoy their outsized characters. Smits is what Hollywood expects a New York City ethnic politician to be, charming and earthy with massive appetites for everything including his savior complex. The villains are the kind who smile when they cut you – drug dealer #1, #2 and #3, though Fat Annie’s son Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stands out with his taste for Travolta-style disco dancing.

Authenticity a must

Luhrmann took the directing task unto himself for the first episode. The night scenes in Fat Annie’s disco are as glossy as Moulin Rouge with the appropriate sweaty dankness rendered necessary by the settings. Ezekiel and his pals play among the ruins of buildings decorated in the exploding colors of tagged subway trains backed by a greatest hits soundtrack.

There isn’t much else there. If you’re looking for anything deeper regarding the origins of rap music and the culture surrounding it, it isn’t in the early episodes. You’ll have to search out the many vibrant documentaries on the era (many of them produced by Nelson George). The subtext of the early episodes of The Get Down should be familiar to even the kids weaned on Step it Up films. Hip-hop culture grew from impoverished situations with kids looking for a way out of the hood, some were tempted by the lure of criminal cash. Oh, and parents just don’t understand.

George gets all the details right, and Luhrmann’s direction counterbalances the authenticity with some whimsy. However, the later episodes lack the energy and drive of the premiere. With former NYC mayor Ed Koch appearing as a character in the tale, later episodes promise to spend some time exploring the attempts, or lack thereof, to address the urban blight of the late-70s Bronx. They should probably go easy on that, however. Leave the piquant observations to the documentary lens, go whole hog on the gloss and have some fun.