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'Vinyl' Is a Corny, Unrealistic, and Kind of Excellent Show About 70s Rock 'n' Roll

I know it's not rock 'n' roll, but I like it.

by Zachary Lipez
15 February 2016, 9:00pm

Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra in 'Vinyl.' Photo courtesy of HBO

The number of non-completely embarrassing pieces of art about rock music, outside of rock 'n' roll itself, can be counted on a sole two-finger salute. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I haven't read because I hate reading about rock music though smart friends say it's great, and the comic book Love and Rockets. Everything else, every other comic book, film, and novel about rock has been not just dancing about architecture but the cliché "dancing about architecture." Velvet Goldmine, while certainly loved by some, is still better known for its soundtrack. Phantom of the Paradise is beloved by me, but is more about being odd than about rock music, per se. Repo Man, probably the best rock movie, is not about rock at all; rather, it's about transcendence and death. No, unless you've deluded yourself into liking, say, the Doors, you have to admit that rock, adolescent hooey, the most glorious kind of hooey there is, doesn't translate to other mediums. But, god in heaven, the old and getting older don't stop trying.

Vinyl, the new HBO phantasmagoria of hard drugs and gormless sideburns, brought to us by Martin Scorsese and Mick "Marianne Faithfull's Ex-Boyfriend" Jagger, is way better than it should be. I can't speak to the quality of the filming itself. My TV watching is pretty much confined to The Expanse, Rick and Morty, and New Girl in the background while I play Warhammer 40K on my phone. TV critics ranging from Vulture to the Washington Post say the camerawork on Vinyl is very fine, and I'll take their word for it. Apparently it's Scorsese's best film work since The Departed. As someone who enjoys both Ben Affleck's Boston oeuvre and that one song by Dropkick Murphys I'd agree it was a fun flick, so that's reasonably high praise.

As far as Vinyl's success at trying to convey what can't be conveyed through film, which is to say what it's like to lose oneself to music and drugs, I'd say it's a solid B. To enjoy the show, it helps to either have never done drugs or seen a band, or to take the production as a kind of magical realism. I, not to brag, have totally done drugs and seen bands, so I went with the latter.

In the opening scene, "record man" Richie Finestra (somewhat though not quite based on Marty Thau and played well throughout by Bobby Cannavale) is sitting in his car in SoHo, buying coke. Two-hundred-and-eighty dollars seems steep for a quarter ounce in 1973 but, as I was not yet a glimmer in my father's eye at the time, the filmmakers would know better. Richie tears off his rearview mirror to cut lines on, using a detective's business card that must have been made of reinforced cardboard. I guess it was more cinematic than using the webbed skin area between your thumb and pointing finger like a normal person would.

After doing his massive line that makes him react like people in movies that take place in the 70s react upon doing lines (and please don't get me started on the rubbing-it-on-your-gums bullshit), his car is then overrun by cascading rockers running Wild in the Streets to the nearby Mercer Arts Center, and he follows. "Punk" is spray-painted in the hallway and even though this is a few years before Punk Magazine premiered and the term itself was still pretty much just being used by a few writers for Creem Magazine, I'm game. And let's not get into my deeply held belief that not a single fan of NYC music between the years of 1967 and 1983 ran anywhere but from the cops, or maybe to the bathroom when the pills went south. It felt strange that the maker of After Hours has a vision of New York that is so corny, so unhip as having young people operate at a speed faster than drugged swagger.

I mention all this stuff that occurs within the first 15 minutes and hardly matters because if you're like me, these glaring inconsistencies coupled with some perhaps necessary personality-establishing, ham-fisted lines, you may be inclined to stop watching. Don't. It gets better. Either that, or I got worse. That's fine, too; I don't look for art to improve me.

The basic plot is Richie trying to save his record label, first financially and later spiritually. After becoming the controlling owner of a now seriously uncool legacy label, he hopes to cash in on the label being sold to German conglomerate Polygram, which is dependent on he and his partners (Ray Romano as Zak Yankovich, a consistent series highpoint, and Max Casella as Julie Silver) all hiding financial irregularities and signing Led Zeppelin. The actors do a swell job of making these big-picture low stakes seem the life or death propositions they are to the protagonists.

Ray Romano. Photo by Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO

There are a few main subplots, including a secretary (Juno Temple)'s attempting to move up to A&R by signing a pre-punk band, whose singer is played by Mick's son James Jagger; Richie's wife Devon (Olivia Wilde as a wonder of love and dissatisfaction); and foul-mouthed comic Andrew "Dice" Clay as Frank "Buck" Rogers, a grotesque and aggrieved-by-Donnie Osmond radio-station owner. The show's black characters are generally portrayed as saints, purveyors of soundtrack funk and soul, and objects of clueless characters' casual racism. There's even the cringeworthy validation from fucked-over blues man Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), told in flashback to Ritchie, "Are you sure you're not a black man?" I'll reserve judgment on that aspect for a few episodes. I want to believe Vinyl won't be corny.

Vinyl is ostensibly about rock 'n' roll music. It works better than most in that regard. The soundtrack is good, a nice mix of old R&B, rerecorded pre-punk standards, and thankfully there's nary a montage set to "Gimme Shelter" to be found. But the show shines as an oversized morality play. Names like ABBA or Suicide work less as plot points than totemic place-setters. The viewer has to decide to take pleasure in hagiography, even if it's about a music that was supposed to reject such sentiments, with Richie Finestra as a Zelig type given total selfish agency. When he rises, Christlike, literally from rubble, at the end of the first episode, it's hard to not be supremely moved. It's only utter fucking hogwash, but I like it.

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