In the new HBO drama series Vinyl, created by the impressive quartet of Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter, record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) struggles with the direction of his record company, American Century. It’s 1973, and the face of music is changing rapidly. Though American Century was once at the pinnacle of the business, and Richie was the man to know in town, the label is searching for its new sound. It still has a handful of big talent names, but they want more, and are looking in every direction for a new hit. In fact, it feels like it could be a corporate board meeting for HBO in 2016.
Vinyl also feels, in always every way, like a classically HBO show, thanks in part to the fact that Winter also created two other marquee dramas for the network: The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. And like those series, Vinyl mainly focuses on a man at war within himself, who takes it out on those around him, and somehow this amounts to greatness. But this time, that presumption rings a little hollow, and though Cannavale gives the role his all (even crying not once but three times in the pilot alone), what carries Vinyl isn’t Richie and his drive for control, but the music. Which is fitting, since that is all, ultimately, that Richie cares about.
Vinyl is both glossy and gritty, full of sex and drugs — and of course rock ’n roll — but also funk, punk, and heavy metal. It’s story is born in the pop music of the 1950s, which the series flashes back to often to juxtapose Richie’s life (and that of his put-upon wife, Devon, played by Olivia Wilde) from what it is now, but its soul is more in line with musical movements which are yet to come. Yes, the fluttery excesses are all a part of glam rock, but Vinyl is from the very start infused with copious amounts of rage that feels much harder and darker than a 70s pop sound.
But like Richie’s desire to find out what his company is really about as it moves forward in a new musical era, so too does Vinyl struggle to pin down its direction and tone. Its two-hour premiere, directed by Scorsese (like he did with Boardwalk Empire), throws everything at the wall. It entrenches itself in lavish trappings and drugs — literal mountains of cocaine — but also provides some memorable visual moments where the camera slows down and really takes in the beauty of a good concert’s otherwise reckless energy. Still, it’s ultimately disjointed, and careens around the show’s many plots in a way that never feels like they even belong to the same show. Similarly, it employs some bewildering, Lynchian moments of musical reverie that end up fading away in subsequent episodes.
When it comes to the label, Richie takes up all the air in the room, and that means his business partners (played by Ray Romano, Max Casella, and J.C. MacKenzie) never get a real chance to distinguish themselves, even though their interactions are some of the funniest and, occasionally, most emotional. One has to step away to two bubbling side plots to leave Richie’s blustering shadow, including one where James Jagger (yes, Mick’s son) fronts a rawly talented rock band that an American Century assistant (Juno Temple) sees as her ticket into A&R. In another side story that gains prominence as the season wears on, Ato Essandoh appears as the only person seemingly capable of putting Richie in his place, and their shared history is one of the series’ more interesting throughlines.
Though the show does a fair job of splitting its time among music scenes starring both black and white acts, it does a lousy job meaningfully incorporating women into almost any aspect of its production. Richie’s wife seems to exist, as of the first four episodes, just to be frustrated by Richie. Women are used as set dressings — groupies, secretaries, sandwich girls. Where are then women singers? We hear them in the show’s soundtrack, but we don’t see them. And even though Temple’s role is one of an up and comer, she’s hardly a Peggy Olsen yet. It’s one of the series’ biggest missteps, although certainly not its only one.
On the bright side, we do spend time with Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, The Allman Brothers, The Mighty Hannibal, and more. Those character cameos are fun, often silly, and occasionally great, as Vinyl mixes itself in with real history. And speaking, earlier, of the soundtrack, it’s positively killer. The show’s music is more structured than on a series like Treme, but it’s not as tightly managed as on Nashville. It won’t bore those who are more interested in the story, but it doesn’t push the performance aspect aside so much that the audiophiles won’t take it seriously. Like Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, the music is the soul of the series, and covers up many of the greater sins of the narrative. But not all.
Vinyl is a series with big names, big ideas, and a big budget, but its grandiosity doesn’t necessarily translate into must-watch television. It takes time to get going, and even four episodes in, still hasn’t really found its voice. HBO is clearly looking for another hit, but this one needs a little more time in A&R.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Vinyl premieres Sunday, February 14th on HBO.