While Stranger Things has been getting all the love this summer, don’t forget to also check out Netflix’s new show, The Get Down. The Baz Luhrmann series takes place in the South Bronx in the 1970’s and uses the “Bronx is burning” backdrop to tell a story about the rise of hip-hop, disco, and punk music while the city was nearing bankruptcy. Like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, this series is a musical, using well-known songs and original lyrics to tell the story of preacher’s daughter Mylene Cruz (played by Herizen Guardiola) who just wants to sing disco instead of gospel and orphan Zeke Figuero (played by breakout start Justice Smith), a smart student that writes poetry and is introduced to the brand-new world of DJ’s and MC’s. While the show received mixed reviews and the first episode is long and slow, it is enjoyable for anyone who appreciates the origins of hip-hop, especially the influence of pioneer Grandmaster Flash. Plus, I’ll watch anything that involves Jimmy Smits.
The backdrop is over the top in typical Baz Luhrmann fashion. The first season had a reported budget of $120 million, unheard of for a television series. And while Luhrmann went to great lengths and spent a great deal of money to make this backdrop of 1970’s New York look authentic, the backdrop is secondary to what the story of this show is really about.
The Get Down uses the backdrop of the 1970’s New York underground music scene to tell the story that we all feel – the story of a person being pulled in multiple directions. Mylene Cruz is a religious girl, growing up in a religious family. She is the daughter of a preacher who wants to sing disco music and wrestles with the tension between her family who stresses modesty and building an insular community for her and her desire to venture out into the secular world to land a record deal.
The main character, Zeke Figuero, finds a way to hone his craft of poetry when he is introduced to the early underground world of hip-hop and partners with Shaolin Fantastic (played by Shameik Moore). He becomes his wordsmith, the newly minted MC that partners with the aspiring DJ. But he is also pressured to conform. As a smart young man, he is given the opportunity to intern for the city of New York, a shining example as a student in the struggling South Bronx who commutes into Manhattan to work in the mostly white city offices. When he is late for his first day, he dismisses it, suggesting that he instead wants to focus on his rap career. But his high school teacher, who sees his potential, challenges him, destroying “the idea that, if you’re smart and educated, you ain’t down and cool.”
Both protagonists are pulled in opposite directions, pressured to conform, to fit into a certain box of societal expectations, based on their looks, dress, educational background, or family structure. But we find with both characters an attempt to not conform. Mylene wants to be remain a part of her religious family and still be a disco star. She doesn’t want to have to choose between one or the other. Books — Zeke’s nickname — is committed to his internship and his rap career, highlighted by the end of season one when he goes back and forth from a rally for mayoral candidate Ed Koch to a rap battle blocks away. He doesn’t want to have to choose between fitting into a certain box, having to be one person or the other. He wants to be both. And that is the positive message of Elul that we should learn this show as well.
We constantly feel pressure to conform. We are expected to fit into a certain box, based on our race or religion or gender identity, based on our careers, where we live, or how much money we have. Yet, the most important message of Elul is to stop trying to be something we are not. When we look inside ourselves and do Chesbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the self, we come to terms with who are are and whom we strive to be. We stop trying to be someone else. The goal of Elul is not to compare ourselves to others. The goal of Elul is to compare where we currently are with where we want to be. We look back on the resolutions we made and goals we set for ourselves at this time last year and see how far we have come and how far we still have to go. We have an opportunity in the new year to be our true selves, our authentic selves. That means not conforming. That means being comfortable interning for the city of New York during the day and rapping with MC’s at night — metaphorically speaking. We spend Elul getting down with our true selves. Look within yourself. Be comfortable with who you are. And share yourself with the world.
For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky