If you were to pick an auteur film talent to make the leap across to television and bring hip hop's origin story to life, it's unlikely Baz Luhrmann would figure prominently on your list. His gaudy, ravishing films have always had music at their heart, but that's about the only thing you'd plausibly say in his favour.
Running against him is his being Australian (maybe the only Western democracy with worse race relations than America), his fondness for theatrical gestures and flamboyant costuming, and a general slickness - all of which should hinder his ability to authentically capture the grit and grain of what birthed rap.
All those issues are undeniably present on The Get Down, Netflix's new Luhrmann-directed mini-series, but despite its corniness the show ends up too charming to dismiss.
It opens with a young man, Zeke, his bedroom behind a blanket in an overcrowded Bronx lounge in an apartment he shares with his aunt and uncle. Despite that being a deeply authentic scenario, Luhrmann's sepia-soaked '70s lensing makes it seem an idyll. It turns out Zeke's a romantic, given to poetry, oblivious to rap's rise in his own borough. Again, plausible, particularly with dramatic license. But it gives the whole thing a fairytale quality that the real, violent, exuberant birth of rap seems like it mostly lacked.
The story creaks slowly into life in the overlong 90 minute first episode. Zeke's got an all time crush on Mylene, a neighbourhood girl with a monster voice. But she views Zeke as childish, lacking drive, and is afraid that should she date him the neighbourhood she's desperate to escape will swallow her whole, taking her searing ambition with it.
They go back and forth, each with their cliques of high school friends, and we clumsily meet graffiti and breakdancing and eventually DJing along the way. The show has that 90s white obsession with venerating the "four elements" of hip hop in dogmatic style.
Even the dialogue seems mainly concerned with edu-taining the viewer: "How would your mother and father feel if they were alive?" "The first time I saw him . . . I said I was gonna groom him good." "In Les Inferno, you can be anything you want."
It's clumsy and wooden. And yet, once it picks up pace toward the second half of the episode, it becomes near-irresistible. Mylene sneaks out to go to Les Inferno, a local disco club filled with pimps and gangsters and coke, hoping to get her demo tape into the right hands. Zeke chases, desperate to avoid her being dragged down into that life.
He sneaks in, they kiss, then chaos erupts and the balletic choreography of Luhrmann finally becomes a help and not a hindrance. The scene gleams, and the chasm between where the young couple are from and where they'd like to go is laid bare, along with the deathly hazards which lurk within it.
They split, and Zeke reconvenes with Shaolin Fantastic, a suitable name for a ludicrous but magnetic character who introduces Zeke and his friends to the nascent hip hop block party culture. The night is a glimpse of a new world rising from the crumbling borough, one which would sweep the world and become the most influential musical innovation of the past four decades. To witness it just-born, however caricatured, has an undeniable power. It dances on the minds of those kids, validating their instincts and setting their minds ablaze with where it might go and the implied power, which creates the most affecting scenes of the whole show.
When it ended I was both over-stuffed and ravenous for more. This strange contradiction - a show filled with people of colour and concerning a pivotal period in African American cultural history, made by a white Australian - is deeply flawed, but also deeply compelling.