So, The Get Down. There are some subtle but persistent magical themes going on in the narrative. There are the top-hatted alien and minor characters with names like ‘Thor’*; there is the tension between ecstasy and devotion**; but right now I want to point out the way art, history, and music play out as aspects of time (magic).
Those themes point us directly toward time and temporality. The characters are always working with time, working with finding enough of it, and working to manipulate the time they have. The most explicit moment of this shows up with Grandmaster Flash explaining how he is able to do some downright magical disappearing tricks: “I know time.” But when it comes to the Get Down itself, the key to victory is knowing how to manipulate time, how to scratch the right records, in the right way, at the right times, and to use that to give the performers a space to express messages.
That sense of time pervades much of the action. Consider the climax of the first chapter: Zeke has to find and make time for two challenges, one political and the other musical, on the same day.
Let’s zoom in on the scene before the ultimate musical showdown, before the eponymous Get Down. There is Zeke standing on the political stage, with a scripted speech in his hands, a speech that may took too long for him and prevent him from showing up at the Get Down at all. What does he do? He begins to look at the graffiti on the passing subways and riffing off it, cutting elements from it that he knows will speak directly to his audience. Hip hop, yes, but also beneath it jazz, and on and on.
Since this has been a week of cross-cuts for me, too, I want to cut to Genesis P-Orridge. They have been on the upswing lately and through Genesis we find our way to another line of American time manipulation, the cut-up. In case you don’t think the cut up was magical, here is Genesis’s recounting their first meeting with Burroughs:
My very first question to him, a living, breathing, Beatnik legend in the flesh was… “Tell me about magick?” …William was not in the least surprised by my question. “Care for a drink?” he asked.
Right, and the story continues:
P-Orridge had asked Burroughs whether or not he still used cut-ups in writing, and he replied “No, I don’t really have to anymore, because my brain has been rewired so it does them automatically!” Putting on the TV to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E., he explained “Reality is not really all it’s cracked up to be, you know…” and began hopping through the channels on the TV with the remote — at the same time mixing in pre-recorded cut-ups from the Sony tape-recorder — until P-Orridge was experiencing a demonstration of cut-ups and Playback in Real Time, Right There Where He Was Sitting
Consider, too, the way in which something similar is at play in other Beat works, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The cutting of the very real into the abstract and back again, making the whole thing dance. It is something akin to what Walter Benjamin was after with his explosive moments of historical consciousness, but here there is a more vigorous engagement with the process, less of the flaneur habits of observation.
Musicality if not music itself is central and Genesis will go on to play a major role in the formation of industrial music, a music that itself exploits some of the tricks of the cut-up to work the world into the song.
There are musical sensibilities that run counter to a historical sensibility, playing through some of the same material but organizing it another way than history. They aren’t all the same musical sensibility, though, and how they rattle and shake and blast at the body of history aren’t the same either.
Different rhythms and cycles of disorganization and different patterns of reunification. Maybe not opposed to each other, but operating in registers, many choirs.
The Get Down turns upon just such an acknowledgment. For the The Get Down Brothers to find their voice, they have to find the beat proper to each of its members, the beat according to which they may express themselves, their distinctiveness, in relationship and coordination with that of their fellows, which is probably where the African roots of this particular musicality shine. The goal is not to have everyone sing in the same way, at the same time, but to coordinate a movement that embraces multiple rhythms.
I’m playing mostly with explicitly musical elements here, but let me close by returning to that scene in The Get Down where Zeke is reading and speaking the subway trains. The trains aren’t music, neither is Zeke’s speech, but in the way he uses the skills and understanding he has cultivated in music, he translates the mysteries he’s learned through music into other domains in order to transform them. The musicality I am talking about here exceeds music itself and describes forms of organization, of which musical forms are exemplary sorts. Painting, writing, moving, thinking, are all susceptible to these forms.
*There is quite a bit that could be said about the line of flight that Jaden Smith’s character, Marcus, follows. From his nickname, ‘Dizzee,’ and his nom de guerre, ‘Rumi 411,’ to his gay crush with ‘Thor’ and discovery of entheogens, we could find a beat that joins this vision of New York to the Middle East to Europe, to Africa, to Latin America, a song of a thundering spirit that draws a train of gay wives behind him. Then there is the relationship between thunder and the beat.
**Mylene’s passion to sing becomes an exploration of the tightrope between the power of enthusiasm to inspire religious devotion and the danger that it will overwhelm it. The scenes that Mylene’s struggle join are the church and the street, the holy (like the themes of her breakout song), the profane (the gay club which fuels its breakout), and the downright infernal (Jackie Moreno’s drug abuse and sexual exploitation; ahem, and his evocation of things like Exu, Moreno-Moor-African).