'Vinyl': TV Review

Vinyl Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

Vinyl Still 2 - H 2016

It rocks.

This propulsive new music industry series from HBO rocks hardest when focusing on the music itself, but excels overall thanks to a brilliant Bobby Cannavale performance.

If you love music, then there’s something majestic about the passionate and perhaps impossible search that writer and showrunner Terence Winter goes on in the new HBO series Vinyl, trying to find the euphoric electrical cord that runs through great rock 'n' roll — from the searing guitar to the pounding drum and the propulsive bass — and ends up in your head. The series posits, rightly, that you know it when you hear it, even if over time, you've been fooled by the sound of something that may imitate greatness but not quite get there.

This is precisely the state in which we find Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) as the first episode begins. We learn that Richie's record company, American Century, is an out-of-tune-with-the-times monolith. It's saddled with a bloated roster of hodgepodge acts that have been acquired by way of random guessing, a little luck and a lot of bets placed on the sounds of the past.

American Century isn’t yet a relic, but it’s a wreck. Nevertheless, the German-run Polygram Records seems indifferent to the bogus bookkeeping, and Richie, along with his two longest-tenured employees and friends — books-cooker Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie ) and promotions ace Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) — are about to cash out of the business and make millions.

Except "three friends build a music empire and then retire" wouldn’t make much of a story. So obviously Richie needs to have an epiphany. As the first episode builds to Richie's coke-fueled revelation, Vinyl proves creatively audacious — a ridiculously exciting visual ode to the fist-pumping power of music. 

The two-hour premiere is directed beautifully by Martin Scorsese, unfolding in terrain well-loved by the director — the mean streets of early 1970s New York City. Vinyl, which is executive produced by Mick Jagger, Scorsese, Winter (and a host of others), is a massively ambitious swing by HBO to not only capture a period but a scene — that moment in time when a strand of more established rock music was growing creatively fertile again (think: David Bowie, The Rolling Stones) and colliding with the emergence of glam rock, punk rock, disco and hip-hop.

That is enormously rich material to wade into, and from the five episodes sent to critics it’s not clear how far Winter and the writers will go for now. (That said, if Vinyl is in this for the long haul as a series, the show will have to go deep to sustain itself.) You can absolutely see the money on the screen and in the scope of Vinyl, which suggests HBO is hoping this ends up as some kind of rock 'n' roll Game of Thrones — big enough to embrace great swaths of history, story and movement.

That will also, of course, present some storytelling challenges — and a few of them pop up in the early hours of what otherwise is a lush deep-dive into the music industry, fueled by Cannavale’s off-the-charts brilliance as Richie.

Vinyl works best when it laser-focuses on the nature of the very particular communal passions that fuel the industry, often revealed through Richie, Zak and Skip's characters. The answer that Vinyl always comes back to (because it’s the correct one) is simple: Rock 'n' roll.

There’s a scene in the first episode where Richie and Zak are drinking outside at a party and reminiscing about their individual discoveries of music — the moments when that bolt of lightning hit them. Richie references the movie Blackboard Jungle and how Bill Haley’s "Rock Around the Clock" kicks in at the end of the film. As is true for most music lovers and the particularly influential moments that changed them, Richie is specific about that moment. As he describes that feeling he got "when the snare kicks," Scorsese cuts right to that scene from the Blackboard Jungle credits. You can feel the snap in that snare drum, and then Richie and Zak start singing, "1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock" and trail off with a smile.

Richie: "Me and my friend went f—ing crazy."

Zak nods in wonder and says: "What is that, huh?"

Richie: "It’s rock 'n' roll."

More than anything that Vinyl tries to do, capturing the essence and impact of moments like that is its heart. And the series is not afraid to keep reminding viewers of the life-altering energy of rock 'n' roll for its devotees. There’s a scene in the second episode where a coked-up, sleep-deprived Richie is on the rampage — a scene that ought to end up on Cannavale’s Emmy reel — and he’s rambling about seeing the New York Dolls the night before: "Rock 'n' roll! That f—ing energy, man. Forget Yes, f—ing Emerson, Lake and Palmer." His eyes are wide and mad and he starts yelling: "Rock 'n' roll – like the first time you heard it! It’s fast, it’s dirty — it smashes you over the head!"

That emotion is what Vinyl is trying to plug into. And the series absolutely works its best while staying on that track — seeking that loud and simple truth.

The two-hour first episode is crafted from a story conceived by Rich Cohen, Jagger, Scorsese and Winter, with the teleplay by Winter and George Mastras. It’s not hard to imagine everybody throwing their favorite music stories into a pile to be culled from in the writers’ room. Jagger’s connection is obvious.

Scorsese’s love of music is evident in every film he makes, and it's also there in the stylized structure of the first episode. With it, he's set a template for future episodes; he generally doesn’t just want to clear the rights to songs and play them over scenes (although that technique is not altogether absent, used with some famous original songs — Bowie, The Stones, etc.). He also wants to create visual interludes where a singer or musician (clearly meant to be someone famous — Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Janis Joplin, Howlin’ Wolf, etc.) is seen performing full songs in an office or a home — full songs, a visual daydream that emphasizes what the characters are thinking. It’s a bold signature stamp that shows the extent to which the people behind Vinyl wanted to use the visceral, emotional impact of music in any way they could.

The second episode (written by Winter and directed by Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire veteran Allen Coulter) has a scene where Richie’s disaffected wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), is dreaming about her days hanging out with Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, only to snap back to reality that she’s in the suburbs with her kids. It’s a depressing situation for her, followed by a scene where she’s stuck in the car listening to The Carpenters of all people (it’s actually Aimee Mann doing a fabulous cover), and there’s a dreamlike element to the scene where an actress portraying Karen Carpenter is in the front seat with Devon, singing. The characters in Vinyl don't simply daydream lazily to mood-enhancing songs in the background; the songs are very much alive alongside them. 

That’s not to say that every music montage or memory works in Vinyl. In many ways, the childhood or teenage memories that Scorsese or Jagger or Winter love root the series in the late 1950s or early 1960s. And, while open-minded music lovers can go from a representation of Bobby "Blue" Bland singing "I’ll Take Care Of You" to Jagger’s son James playing the lead singer of the fictional punk band the Nasty Bits, it might be a journey too long for others. That is, music is the most personal of all the arts, and not all of the "sounds" in the series will hook viewers, which could be detrimental.

But ultimately the sweet spot of the show is very clearly the early 1970s, and an argument can be made that the era clusters enough variety into the demo that Vinyl never seems to skip a beat while there.

Where the series does sometimes get a little sluggish is in the non-music-focused stories. Winter and the writers made a decision to weave a murder (mostly accidental) into the first episode that will cause trouble, it seems, throughout the first season. And because it’s probably not feasible to have every second of every episode focused on the music, the home lives of Richie and Zak are also extensively portrayed, to debatable effect. It’s not that those stories are bad in any way — for one thing, Romano gets to remind everybody who didn’t see Men of a Certain Age that he’s a superb dramatic actor. 

And Wilde, who shines here, has a vastly more interesting backstory with Warhol and that downtown milieu than she does currently as Richie’s wife/suburban mother. Devon’s dissatisfaction with her life mirrors Richie’s unhappiness about where his record label ended up. Both of them, to fuel bigger stories, clearly need to work out those sacrifices of settling for something less than they dreamed. Their problems are real enough, it’s just that the vitality of New York clubs, live music, the portrayal of famous bands and artists — all of that is stickily addictive both aurally and visually. Fretting about a murder or a crumbling marriage just can't compete.

The backstories of Devon and Richie and the others do ultimately add to the expansiveness of Vinyl and provide a foundation for it to grow into a potentially longer run. There's also an exceptional ensemble cast helping prop up those stories, from Max Casella to Ato Essandoh to Juno Temple (who looks to break out here). Even in the first handful of episodes, which are uniformly strong, the stories are barely tapping into the cast on hand — but the results indicate they can handle more.

Music being such a personal preference, who knows if the show will be a hit for HBO. But creatively it’s a thing of real beauty, attempting to tell stories of people absolutely enamored with music on a life-altering level. Cannavale, already established and known to crush a scene on demand, takes his work to an entirely new stratum here — Vinyl pulsates in every scene he’s in. He transports the series precisely because he gets the mandate Winter, Jagger and Scorsese must have laid out for him: Put your finger in the rock 'n' roll socket and tell the story of what it’s like to need that sonic drug.

Airs: Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano, J.C. MacKenzie, Max Casella, Ato Essandoh, P.J. Byrne, Birgitte Hjort Sorenson, Juno Temple, Jack Quaid, James Jagger, Paul Ben-Victor

Creator: Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, Terence Winter
Showrunner: Terence Winter