As Netflix starts to fill up their offerings with more original content in its quest to dethrone HBO as content king, the movies and TV shows they feature for viewers to essentially re-watch still remains robust, but clearly the future for the channel is securing brand loyalty by creating their own shows. But where the Big Three and Hollywood movie studios keep their creative groups buried in an avalanche of “notes” (i.e., producers telling the director, writers, and showrunners what to cut, add, or tweak), Netflix leaves the creative folks alone to do what they do best. Now, who knows, Netflix could “go Hollywood” and become just as douchey or authoritarian as the stereotypical studio big wig by meddling in shows to make them more appealing to a mass audience, but until that day comes, Netflix will do what it seems to do best: bankroll shows that sound interesting and should appeal to a large enough audience to get a good return on the investment.
Netflix must have a good reputation in the entertainment business because A-list talent is banging on their door to get their projects made. Judd Apatow is certainly no stranger to having his hand in a number of projects, and with “Love” he has helped to create something almost as annoying as “Girls” — but with a slight twist. That “twist” is not all the characters are miserable and horrible people whose misery and horribleness grow exponentially when interacting with each other. Rather, “Love” really only has one miserable and horrible character: Mickey (Gillian Jacobs). The other half of the “Love” pairing is Gus (Paul Rust) — who looks like he could be Geddy Lee’s son not only because he kind of looks like Lee, but he also plays bass guitar. Gus isn’t miserable or horrible. Rather, he’s more annoying in the way he’s always friendly and upbeat around people. That sunny demeanor masks a passive-aggressive streak that becomes more pronounced the more Gus tries to assert himself. But annoyance is one thing, just being a horrible person is another. And that’s where Mickey really excels in the show.
It may seem ironic that a show called “Love” has at its center such an unpleasant character, but both Jacobs and Rust (who co-wrote the series) have something to say about why people are attracted to one another, and why even some of the worst people on the planet need love too. The main arc of the story centers on Gus and Mickey’s romance and how it grows and falls apart in the space of a month, but it feels more like a year has gone by with all the drama that befalls the couple. Mickey is a recovering alcoholic who works as a radio producer, and Gus is a teacher of child actors. Both seem to have enough money to go out and have fun with their friends, but not enough to afford anything more than that. Gus went to film school and often gathers with his friends at their homes to create theme songs for films that don’t have them. It’s kind of a strange hobby, but one that demonstrates how arcane film knowledge can lead to geeky jam sessions with friends for pure entertainment. Mickey, on the other hand, is someone who has clearly washed the stars out of her eyes. She’s not impressed with Hollywood, film trivia, or even the radio talent for whom self-importance is a job skill. So what are her passions in life? It seems sabotaging any chance for happiness is the main one. Making sure everyone else gets sucked into the vortex of her anger-soaked narcissism is another. Mickey is the kind of character that makes one wonder why people like this get so much time in the spotlight. Yes, she has daddy issues. Yes, she has substance abuse problems. Yes, she’s insulting. And yes, she’s probably a bit crazy. But it seems that these are precisely the kind of characters Judd Apatow likes to parade around the big and small screen. What are we supposed to understand about women like Mickey? If it’s how to avoid white women who are miserable, narcissistic bullies, then message received.
The Get Down
Rap music is 40-years-old this year. Yeah. Let that sink in for a bit. For a musical form that’s been a force for 40 years, there haven’t been that many films or TV shows that center on the beginnings of rap. And one of the most unlikely people to create a drama about the beginnings of rap is Australian director Baz Luhrmann. But the combination of Luhrmann — whose stylized films have a hedonistic and epic quality — fused with up from the underground grit of rap gives the series a gloss of romanticism that’s effective and often powerful. And while “The Get Down” doesn’t always succeed in its ambitions, it does give viewers an understanding of how one musical genre (rap) eventually decenters another (disco) to become a dominant and enduring musical style.
The story is a fairly simple one: Zeke and Mylene are 15-year-old kids from the Bronx whose passion for music is seen as their ticket out their working-class community. The year is 1977, and disco is king in a rotting and decaying New York City. Mylene wants to be the next disco superstar. Zeke is looking for love and stability after the death of his parents and sees Mylene as the person who can give him the love he craves. Zeke is also a poet whose rhymes get him noticed by his teachers at school, but he downplays his talent for fear of being singled out for ridicule by his classmates. Mylene has an overbearing father who also happens to be a pentecostal preacher and a local politico uncle who profits off of shady deals and insurance money made from suspicious apartment fires. Everyone, it seems, is looking to make a buck through legitimate or illegitimate means. Essentially, it’s the dirty rotten game of capitalism — crony, gangster, the music business, and the mom and pop variety. But that’s supposed to be what New York City is about, right? And while Luhrmann and company do present The Bronx in all its hellish glory, it really is filtered through a patina of bright and lavish colors that suggests a fantasy.
But “The Get Down” isn’t quite a fond look back to 1977. Rather, the series does a nice job of mixing documentary footage from the era with the story of the fall of disco and the rise of rap. If there’s one genre missing from this tale, it’s punk. Except for a few nods to that other fringe musical form that evolves into New Wave, punk hardly makes an appearance. Disco is seen both at its peak and most transgressive. An odd combination, but “The Get Down” does nail how Disco was about sexual liberation not only of heterosexuals but gays as well — oh, and the drugs were also key to transgressing norms. But unlike rock music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Disco had a thumping beat, a culture where good dancing, good clothes, and good hair ruled. This is where “The Get Down” excels. The series is very adept at portraying competing musical styles with a good mix of authenticity and fantasy. Where the series falters is in the story. It’s not like we haven’t seen stories about strivers from working-class neighborhoods trying to escape their communities for superstardom before. And that’s why “The Get Down” stumbles by presenting the main story (and the stories of secondary characters) in almost stereotypical ways — or in ways that borrow heavily from “West Side Story.” Instead of the Sharks and the Jets, we get Disco Queens and Rappers. A preacher and a corrupt community kingpin (who are brothers). A gangster club owner who peddles in drugs and disco and a music label honcho who peddles in disco and ripping artists off. Each has its own culture, each has its own codes, and each sees others as competitors — and sometimes even within their own groups.
We also see how difficult it is to learn musical techniques and crafts. For Mylene, Zeke and Zeke’s crew (Shaolin, Boo-Boo, Ra-Ra, and Dizzy), doing their 2500 hours of practice is shown in some detail. Even when Zeke’s partner and DJ, Shaolin Fantastic, is learning how to mix from Grandmaster Flash, the amount of time it takes him to master the turntables is a long slog. He makes mistakes, generally sucks at first, and then slowly understands and masters some of the lessons Flash imparts on his “Grasshopper.” For me, those are some of the novel flourishes “The Get Down” gets right. And since music is at the center of the story, portraying the tedium and frustration of practicing one’s craft to the point that it looks easy is something I wish more filmmakers would do.
So while “The Get Down” doesn’t always knock it out of the proverbial park, it’s generally a very good drama where music, drugs, politics, and love collide in ways that, while stereotypical at times, is compelling enough to binge on.