Review: Vinyl Seeks Rock’s Holy Grail

6 minute read

It’s a funny thing about rock gods: They rise as a result of their rebellion, their willingness to push past propriety in search of musical Valhalla—and a few short decades later, what was once edgy is now establishment. Just ask the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or anyone who’s ever made a buck selling a CBGB T-shirt.

Or ask Mick Jagger! The Rolling Stone is now, with his film-world equivalent Martin Scorsese, an executive producer and co-creator of the new HBO series Vinyl, which premieres Feb. 14. With Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter and award-winning nonfiction writer Rich Cohen also on board, Vinyl attempts to capture the anarchic spirit of rock’s 1970s heyday while cohering to the expectations of TV’s new golden age–that a troubled, morally ambiguous hero will pursue his or her ambitions while the story makes big rhetorical statements about society. A spin of Vinyl‘s first five episodes reveals a beautifully made, sophisticated-enough antihero drama in the Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire mold, but one hampered by incongruities that keep it from being a true game changer.

Bobby Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, a record executive with never-ending crises that begin in the space between his two very valuable ears. He’s an addict whose life has become unmanageable, a husband whose wife (Olivia Wilde) has long since grown disillusioned and a music-biz whiz whose colleagues (including his morose partner Zak, played by Ray Romano in a curious triumph of a performance) don’t trust or respect him. That last part drives much of the narrative. Richie’s belief that his label, American Century, could do better at finding music that inflames passions leads him to torch a business deal and set out with his A&R chief Julie (Max Casella) in search of the next big thing, rather than release more empty records that the label will end up dumping in the river in order to manipulate sales figures.

In a fiercely committed performance, two-time Emmy winner Cannavale seems ready at any moment to burn down the screen, and the direction—Scorsese helmed the pilot—and writing provide plenty of tinder. The series opens with Richie sweating and drinking behind the wheel of his car, eventually tearing off the rearview mirror so that his cocaine can be snorted from a flat surface. We’re still far from his rock bottom, or the show’s dramatic peak.

With the blood-drenched fantasy world of Game of Thrones now headed into its sixth season, Vinyl is crucial for HBO. It marks a return to the ambitious, modern-day drama that made the network’s name in the days of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. As he did in his season-long arc as maniacal gangster Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, Cannavale puts his back into making it work.

Richie is worse than a rogue; he’s a disaster. This sort of troubled, stimulant-filled business maverick is ubiquitous on TV, but Cannavale carves Richie a new path through sheer grit—his energy level pushes past aesthetic questions of good or bad. Like Jagger singing a forgettable B-side in concert, Cannavale has the raw star power to sell anything, from junkie desperation to the joy of experiencing an electrifying rock show, in person or simply in memory. Vinyl relies heavily on cutaways to actors impersonating music greats such as Janis Joplin and Jerry Lee Lewis. Though these moments are more deferential than magical, Cannavale’s wild eyes convince you that he’s really seeing the stars perform.

Off in her own plotline, Wilde excels as a former Warhol muse who has given up dreams of stardom. But narratively she’s a drag, mourning for her husband as we’re rooting for him. Her story smacks the most of Scorsese’s influence: like Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street or Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, Wilde plays a wife who’s largely left out of the fun, and her isolation is the point. But on a weekly basis, it becomes frustrating to watch her relatively humdrum life when Richie is putting on a show.

Visually Vinyl takes care to make Richie’s world as vivid and appealing as possible. Dissolution is presented as not just glamorous but expensive, from the attention paid to lighting each musical cutaway to a progression of shots as striving junior employee Jamie (Juno Temple) arrives to work at the gold-encrusted Brill Building. As the ornamentation catches the eye, it feels like Jamie’s really made it—until she’s degraded yet again by bosses who view her as an apparatus for fetching coffee.

This gets at the core frustration of Vinyl: it’s so torn between reverently obsessing over the bygone days of the music biz and the imperatives of contemporary prestige TV that it tries not just to say something but to say everything. Is it a show about two thwarted women whose artistic ambitions and talents the men around them aren’t able to register? Yes. Is it simultaneously nostalgic for a time even earlier than the past it depicts, when great men were able to exercise their instincts and find musical genius? That too! There’s a subplot touching on a grave injustice inflicted upon a gifted black singer and also a murder plot. Even the name of Richie’s label, American Century, seems pointed, though what it points toward never made it out of the writers’ room.

“Can you hum it?” Richie asks his staff about the new hits he’s tasked them to find. “Will you remember it tomorrow? Does it make you want to call the radio station and find out who the band they just played was?” Vinyl doesn’t project the lyricism to which Richie aspires. It may have something to love for practically every viewer and plenty of references to ’70s stars that will satisfy rock fans, but even through his drug-addled mania, Richie knows this immutable fact: no one has ever reverse-engineered a song that moved the culture.

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