'Vinyl' Review: You Can't Always Get What You Want

Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Music has always been an animating energy in the cinema of Martin Scorsese, and he is of the age (he’s now 73) to have grown up alongside the evolution of rock & roll. This gives his new HBO series Vinyl, premiering Sunday, the weight of birthright: He can claim this music — from Chuck Berry on through to punk, disco, and rap-which-became-hiphop — as art experienced first-hand, up-close and personal, and has made artful use of it starting with his first major film, 1973’s Mean Streets. Scorsese didn’t need to enlist Mick Jagger as one of the show’s co-creators for added credibility — if anything, Scorsese’s ear for the variety of music necessary to mount a panoramic drama of this industry in the 1970s is even better (more objective, if you will) than Jagger’s, whose Rolling Stones spent that decade contortedly reacting to and against punk/disco/rap.

Vinyl tells the story of Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale in full, motor-mouthed glory, his every entrance into a room a brash, Saturday Night Fever stride. Richie is a music-lover whose tragic flaw is to have made his love his business: When we meet him he’s become what we used to call a “bizzer,” and not a very good one: He presides over his own label, American Century, which as the series begins is in dreadful financial shape. So is Richie: He’s starting a downward spiral into the coke-and-booze benders he’d sworn off to please his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), and his young family, tucked away from some of the music-biz madness in a Connecticut suburb.

At work, Richie is surrounded by yes-men (yes, they’re mostly men) plus a few close buddy-colleagues led by Ray Romano’s Zak, a cynical promotions manager. (Romano, who’s proven to be so good a dramatic actor in Parenthood and Men of a Certain Age, he could have made a very interesting Richie Finestra himself.) Into that male den slips Juno Temple as Jamie Vine, a go-fer who yearns to be an A&R (artists-and-repertoire) representative — she wants Richie to sign a new act, a nascent punk band called the Nasty Bits, to the label. She encounters the casually brutal sexism most young women faced in that era, but persists, knowing her instincts are right.

RELATED: ‘Vinyl’ Showrunner Terence Winter Sets the Stage for HBO’s 1970s Rock and Roll Drama

In setting the series in New York in the first half of the 1970s, Scorsese, Jagger, along with co-creators Rich Cohen and showrunner Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), want to portray the nexus of not just the emerging, often conflicting, new sounds of punk, disco, and rap, but also give viewers a reminder of what the industry was like back then. Richie’s label is foundering in part because it lacks a clear corporate identity and strategy. Richie wants to be a taste-maker, but he’s also saddled with squaresville “legacy acts” like Donny Osmond and Robert Goulet. His desperation for a big hit lends Vinyl its narrative purpose, pushing Richie out of his offices in the storied Brill Building on Broadway and into the clubs, bellowing orders that his A&R staff must do the same, sending them out in a frantic scurry for the Next Big Thing.

The weakness of Vinyl is embedded in this dramatic structure. We’ve seen countless TV shows and movies about jaded businessmen searching for a fresh act to discover, groom, build into a success, and exploit; Vinyl has nothing new to add to this other than the patented Scorsese pacing and some wizardly editing. He’s reaching for a TV show with the grand scale and sweep of Goodfellas; he’ll settle for Wolf of Wall Street, but too often, his relative inexperience in series television doesn’t make the scenes crackle with the tension than Michael Mann brought decades ago to his own music-fueled TV series such as Miami Vice and Crime Story.

The character of Richie is also a problem. Richie as written is retro-fitted with good taste. He loves R&B and old rock & roll; he immediately grasps that, beneath the mascara and glitter, the New York Dolls are throwbacks to the primal rock era; he possesses an uncanny-to-the-point-of-unbelievable instant understanding that DJ Kool Herc is laying the foundation for hiphop the very first time Richie hears a Herc scratch a few records on turntables set up on a sidewalk.

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In other words, for a bizzer, Richie has the instincts of a rock critic — in particular, the kind of white male rock critic who was plying his trade during the 1970s, your humble author included. Richie hates what rock critics hated then, primarily art-rock. (Richie bad-mouths Emerson Lake and Palmer, ignores Pink Floyd, and actually breaks a piece of Jethro Tull vinyl in a fit of irritation.) Of course, it was a rock critic — the late Paul Nelson — who in his brief career as an A&R man ended up signing the New York Dolls to a record contract (with Mercury) — a great band that made two great albums and yet sold so few of them, the sales figures would have dampened Richie’s enthusiasm considerably.

Richie’s deepest regret is that he never made a star of the huge talent he tried managing at the start of his career, a superb blues guitarist and singer, Ato Essandoh’s Lester Grimes, whose gifts are contorted into something cheap, and then destroyed. (That Grimes, who is black, remains a symbol more than a man, despite the best efforts of Essandoh, is another aspect of Vinyl’s unsteadiness whenever it ventures past white-male paradigms.)

Too much of Vinyl feels like the work of American Studies post-grads so steeped in the greatest-hits of rock history that their thesis paper feels over-stuffed. When the show gets to Alice Cooper, portrayed by Dustin Ingram, it has to tap two bio details so quickly, they must be shoved into the same scene — thus, Cooper’s stage-prop boa constrictor is brought out for a few rounds of golf.

At its best, Vinyl surges with the confident knowledge of its era. The series successfully recreates the lower-Manhattan music scene — the dank murk of the Mercer Arts Center, where the New York Dolls broke through, and especially the Academy of Music on 14th Street, where I, like Richie, spent many nights having my eardrums shattered by that venue’s almost absurdly eclectic bills of fare as overseen by empresario Howard Stein: one night Gentle Giant; the next, Black Oak Arkansas; the next, some scruffy guy named Bruce Springsteen. From the copies of Circus Magazine lying round in American Century’s offices to the invocation of hallowed bizzer names like Premier Talent booker Frank Barcelona, Vinyl knows its stuff… mostly: At one point in the pilot episode, a secretary says to Richie, “Lester Bangs returned your call.” For anyone who knew the great rock critic, there is no funnier line in Vinyl.

Jagger’s chief contribution to Vinyl might be his spawn: Son James Jagger is the lead singer of the Nasty Bits, who appear in Vinyl as a cross between the Sex Pistols and the Dead Boys. (James’s character Kip Stevens shoots heroin like Sid Vicious, but he carries himself generally with more of the ironic self-mythologizing of dear old Stiv Bators.)

HBO made five of the show’s 10 episodes available for review, and Olivia Wilde has the two best scenes in them. The first occurs when we see a bit of her past as a former Andy Warhol Factory habitué — a model who’s been filmed by Warhol and was the subject of one of his mechanically produced silkscreens. When she goes to see Warhol after a number of years, her mixture of pride and shame at what she’s going to him for (I won’t spoil it) is registered in subtle ways on Wilde’s face.

The other scene is the opposite in terms of subtlety. Richie asks Devon to go with him to a nighttime meeting/party with one of his label clients, the Sly Stone-ish Hannibal (Daniel J. Watts), to persuade him to re-sign his contract. As Devon notes, she’s being used as “bait,” and rather than resist, she decides to use her sexual power to entice both Hannibal and her husband, in an erotic scene made witty by the way Wilde communicates exactly how much she knows what she’s doing, driving both men a little crazy. Wilde has said she wanted reassurances from Scorsese that Devon wouldn’t be a mere wife prop in the series, and a scene like this — easily as potent as anything in Vinyl — proves the director made good on their agreement.

Much of Vinyl, I suspect, is going to leave viewers younger than Scorsese and company scratching their heads, if only because the era portrayed was almost wholly without the kind of reflexive irony, or the so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic, that has come to dominate pop culture in the post-American Idol era. Bred into the show’s DNA is the notion that R&B and rock are the Real Thing, the ultimate Truth of popular music — an attitude that until recently was termed “rockist” and now can just seem limiting and foolish.

Scorsese and Winter and a whole host of talented episode writers and directors including Jonathan Tropper (Banshee), S. J. Clarkson, Debora Cahn, and Adam Rapp labor mightily to bend you to the will of Richie Finestra — to see and hear the music the way he does, as full of endless innovation and possibility — but too often, Vinyl traps you in a familiar cycle of sex and drugs and rock & roll.

Vinyl premieres Sunday, Feb. 14, at 9 p.m. on HBO.