Friday, April 29, 2016

"Vinyl" Spins A Wild Tale of 70s Rock

The recently completed first season of HBO’s Vinyl, was a mix of good performances, solid music and an intriguing, though flawed look at the rock & roll world of the 1970s. The show was created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence (Boardwalk Empire) Winter, so it had the makings of being a powerful look at how the music business was changing during that tumultuous decade. The series tells the story of American Century, a New York-based record label owned by Richie Finestra, played with his usual intensity by Bobby Cannavale. Along with the rest of his staff, including his friends Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) and Julian “Julie” Silver (Max Casella) the head of A&R, Richie tries to find the great band as rock, soul, disco and punk all collide in a fast-changing musical landscape. Richie is continually abusing drugs & alcohol, spurred on by the financial troubles of the record company, and his tumultuous relationship with his wife Devon, played by Olivia Wilde. 

The pilot, directed by Scorsese, was a visually striking episode that found Richie in the midst of a cocaine binge, as he attended a concert by the real life band the New York Dolls, which literally brings the house down. That’s one of the most clever conceits of the series: while Richie & the main characters are fictional, they live & work in the “real” rock & roll world of the era, and rub elbows with Alice Cooper, Robert Plant & Elvis (portrayed by actors, of course) which gives the show a unique feel. Many of the show’s scenes are interspersed with performers standing in for well-known artists & lip-syncing songs of the time period. The selections are well chosen & often inspired, but some of the sequences work better than others.

Richie’s search for the next big thing brings him into contact with a punk band called the Nasty Bits, who are brought to his attention by an ambitious A&R assistant, Jamie Vine, played by Juno Temple. The group’s lead singer is portrayed by Chris Jagger, who’s Mick’s son, and he does a very nice job in the role. As Richie & his crew try to shape the group into rock stars, we see flashbacks to the label’s (and Richie's) past, and how the company came to be. There’s a lot of heartbreak, bad decisions, and deals with the mob. Some of those choices come back to haunt Richie. As his marriage, his friendships & his label begin to disintegrate, will he find redemption?

The show looks great & the music is fantastic, but the subsequent episodes, while they’ve all had their moments, didn’t quite live up to the promise of the pilot. There's no doubt Richie is an interesting character, but he’s essentially unlikable, despite Cannavale’s charisma & solid (though often wildly over the top) performance. We just don’t care about him enough to root for him, especially when he keeps making such terrible choices, and mistreating those closest to him. However, one of the show’s pleasant surprises is Ray Romano’s multi-layered, nicely turned portrayal of Zac, whose friendship with Richie is tested to its limits. And despite the fact that the women in the cast have to work with some clichéd, underwritten material, Temple as Jamie Vine, Wilde as Devon, and Annie Parisse as Andrea Zito, an executive who Richie brings in to help stabilize his sinking ship, all have some excellent moments.

The series is watchable & often enjoyable, but the inconsistent writing, and somewhat predictable storylines (including a superflous murder subplot) often drag the show down. Although the music is excellent, Vinyl sometimes plays fast & loose with the facts of the period’s history. Interestingly enough, co-creator and show runner Terence Winter left the show at the end of the season, hinting at some behind the scenes troubles. The series has been renewed for a second year, so hopefully Season 2 will be more consistent. The show does have enough effective moments to make it worth a look for rock fans, but it could have been a classic. Considering the talent involved, it falls a bit short of that mark. Let’s hope Vinyl’s second spin lives up to its promise. Here’s a link to a trailer for the series:

Review update on 6/23/16: HBO has announced they are canceling Vinyl and will not be producing a second season of the series after all. It looks like we'll never know what might have occurred for Richie & the rest of the characters, so chalk this one up to a missed opportunity.

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