The soundtrack for the Netflix drama The Get Down, which tells the story of the birth of hip-hop in '70s NYC, mixes disco classics with contributions from Nas, Miguel, Kamasi Washington, and others.
In 1977, New York City was in turmoil: the crime rate was high, morale was low and a serial killer was on the loose. Yet, as the social fabric was disintegrating across the five boroughs, artistic creativity was thriving. Punk rock shows attracted crowds too large for even the scene’s most popular venues, disco music flowed into the mainstream and the nascent hip-hop movement was gaining traction in the South Bronx. This is the setting for The Get Down, the Baz Luhrmann-produced series that was reportedly ten years in the making.
The show’s first six episodes premiered on Netflix on August 12 and its soundtrack was delivered on the same day, featuring a mix of disco-era classics and original compositions. These songs are woven through the episodes that retell the adventures of the protagonist (Ezekiel Figuero, played by a watchful Justice Smith) as a teenager in 1977, as narrated by his older self in 1996. Regrettably, despite a roster of all-star musicians, the album falls short as a standalone work and even shorter when considered as the accompaniment to a musical drama.
It’s very frustrating when a song has all the elements for success, but you can hear them getting in each other’s way. Twice, on two different songs, Michael Kiwanuka is derailed by verses from an apathetic Nas. The first instance is “Rule The World (I Came From the City),” which starts out as a brooding ballad bookended by Kiwanuka’s dark, bluesy timbre. But the second foul, “Black Man in a White World (Ghetto Gettysburg Address),” is flagrant, because the original version would’ve been a perfect addition to this soundtrack if left untouched. Its lyrics, recounting the malaise of disenfranchised minority citizens, ring as true in 2016 as they would have in 1977.
Though it’s tempting to blame the dischord on a somewhat unlikely pairing, this strategy proves quite effective effective elsewhere on the album. The tracklist smartly matches up artists who were born long after disco had died with musicians who lived through and even defined the era. Zayn and Teddy Pendergrass come together on a Grandmaster Flash-helmed rework of “You Can’t Hide From Yourself,” from Pendergrass’ debut album. Zayn commendably pushes his voice to the upper reaches of his range on the first half, but then steps aside to let Teddy P bring it home. “Telepathy,” a simple love song made grander through an arrangement of horns and strings, is one of Christina Aguilera’s best performances in recent years. The vocal is restrained by her standards, but it still comes through strong and measured—guided by the incomparable Nile Rodgers. Leon Bridges offers an amped-up tribute to “Ball of Confusion,” and he succeeds by respecting the Temptations’ 1970 hit single while somehow emulating their energy in a solo performance.
Some more relief comes around the soundtrack’s midsection, in the form of five unedited grooves. Among them, Lyn Collins’ funk classic “Think (About It)” and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” which you either recognize because of her long-lasting influence as the Queen of Disco or from a manic Girl Talk album. While these tracks haven’t lost any of their floor-filling lustre through the years, they are almost outdone by two original compositions from Miguel and Janelle Monáe. Miguel flips a disco beat into something much trippier on “Cadillac,” which shares a name with the sinister coked-out club owner played by relative newcomer Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The song comes complete with an esoteric bridge (“That unicorn, that lush/That savage baby, that rush”) and a dreamlike outro that lasts for over a minute. But Monáe’s “Hum Along & Dance (Gotta Get Down)” is the showstopper, built from uplifting brass, a dirty bassline and a chorus that name checks the series title. If the show were to have an official theme song this should be it, rather than Jaden Smith’s middling “Welcome to the Get Down.”
Monáe’s song is wedged between “Bad Girls” and CJ & Co.’s “Devil’s Gun” on a five-song throwback stretch that ends with Hector Lavoe’s “Que Lio,” but everything that follows feels like filler. The soundtrack is on sale as a deluxe version, a term that often foretells a sequence of unrelated bonus tracks tacked on to the end. Starting with “Just You, Not Now (Love Theme)” by Australian singer Grace, we shift away abruptly from the overarching disco theme and wade through a cluster of songs that are tough to appreciate when divorced from their context (although three of them showcase newcomer Herizen Guardiola who is definitely one to watch.) The entire thing clocks in at roughly an hour and a half—the average length of a feature film that would need to tell a much more cohesive and complete story to keep an audience engaged.
It’s rare for a soundtrack to exceed the performance of the work that it’s meant to complement. Superfly and Shaft are two notable exceptions from the same decade depicted in The Get Down—Pharrell’s “Happy” is a more modern example. The show will go down in history for many reasons, unfortunately it doesn’t seem like this album will be one of them.