What's Wrong With Vinyl?

By the Crusty Curmudgeon
March 16, 2016

Warning: Spoilers ahead. Turn back now if you don't want to know anything about the show.

Vinyl is a new HBO series set in the New York City music scene of the 1970s. Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger are among the producers and Terence Winter (Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) is the chief writer. Scorsese has also directed the pilot episode and has stated that he plans to direct further episodes down the line.

If this is the first you’ve heard of the series, you just might be in shock, so I’ll say it again: HBO. 70s. New York music scene. Scorsese. Jagger. Winter. (But truly, if I didn’t already have you at “HBO” and “70s New York music scene,” I probably don’t want to know you.)

With all this going for it, how could the show possibly fail, right? Well, we’re five episodes in as I type this and, as much as it pains me to admit, I have to be honest: Things aren’t looking good. Sure, they might still turn it around, but the way it’s been going (and the season is half over at this point), this possibility feels most unlikely.

The show’s problems are many. First, the narrative perspective is all wrong. Our protagonist—along with his inner circle—are all top-level executives at the fictional record company, American Century. This wouldn’t be the most relatable of groups even under normal circumstances, but it plays particularly worse in our current economic climate. Compounding matters, the premise of the very first episode is that these scumbag executives are about to sell out to some German conglomerate and make a fortune, putting most of the working stiffs at their label out on the street in the process. When said protagonist (Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale) blows up the deal in the second episode, it’s hard to muster any sympathy for him or his cronies.

I think in a show about music we would have been better served by having young, aspiring musicians as our protagonist(s)/point-of-view character(s). That’s where the music aficionados want to be: where the music is being made. But okay, let’s say you’re wed to the record label being the center of things, for whatever reason. If this were the case, I would have put our protagonist more on the level of, say, Clark Morelle (played by Jack Quaid)—a young A&R executive at the label still looking to make his mark. This would have given the audience a much more sympathetic protagonist. Or better yet, how about Jamie Vine (played by Juno Temple), a character at the very bottom of the ladder, professionally, and a woman to boot—how bold and refreshing would this have been?

Another problem is the rampant clichés. I love Scorsese but we’ve had more than a few Scorsese clichés here. First, obviously, are the crime elements in the storyline. Yes, the mob had its hooks in the music industry way back when, so it’s certainly not inaccurate to see it portrayed here, but it’s something I would downplay if I had any creative say. But they went in the complete opposite direction. To have Richie get involved with a violent murder in the first episode—a murder that appears to be a major plot point going forward—is a serious error.

Richie’s coke habit is also a difficulty. Again, was cocaine a big thing in the music industry back then? Sure it was—but it’s been done to death. If you want to put it in the show that’s fine, but I wouldn’t shine a spotlight on it as they're currently doing. Also: the shot of Richie taking a snort and then whipping his head back as we cut to an overhead shot also seems to have been done far too frequently in prior Scorsese films. (Moreso, I’ve never seen anyone react this way in real life after taking a snort.)

There are other Scorsese clichés of a more musical nature. Take the use of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” in Episode 3. Perhaps my favorite Wolf track ever, but I think Scorsese has used it in several of his more recent films. Just pick another track; Lord knows Wolf has plenty to choose from. Then there’s the most recent episode (Episode 5), which featured Procol Harum’s “Conquistador.” The moment I heard it I was immediately transported back to “Life Lessons,” the Scorsese chapter from New York Stories. Who wants to bet that we get George Harrison’s “What Is Life” and/or “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos before the season ends?

While we’re on the subject: These musical cutaways are artistically bold but don’t seem to add much (if anything) to the proceedings beyond mere flash. In Episode 4, for example, Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” doesn’t offer any particular insight to the scene, except maybe that the sprinkler system represents human tears somehow…? (I’ll grant some of the earlier cutaways made some semblance of thematic sense, however slight; this Joplin one was probably the weakest/most nonsensical.)

Getting back to Richie, I think that at least part of the problem may be that the role was just flat-out miscast. Bobby Cannavale is a big guy with a low, intimidating voice. He can be scary, which made him work as an unhinged gangster on Boardwalk Empire, but it works against the character on Vinyl. Take the scene in the second episode, where Richie returns to the office after watching Enter the Dragon all night, coked to the gills, and breaks the nose of Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano). This could have been hysterically funny (and I'm fairly sure it was written to be humorous), but the fact is that when Cannavale hits somebody he looks like he could seriously mess a guy up. Imagine this scene if an actor of smaller stature like Max Casella (who plays Julian) had the Richie part—the scene would have achieved the humor that, I believe, was originally intended.

It all adds to the effect of Richie coming off as a bully. In addition to being physically imposing, Richie is the boss of the whole label and can fire anybody at a whim (and has already promised to do so as the company begins some belt tightening). When he yells at a co-worker, you feel fear for them on multiple levels.

On the flip side (pun unintended), the Richie character seems to be too perfect in other respects. Specifically, his musical instincts are flawless. Not only is he prescient enough to recognize the greatness of the New York Dolls (experiencing a near-religious epiphany when he sees them perform in the pilot), but he also gets his head turned around when he hears Kool Herc spinning. The man’s genius cuts across every musical genre, even those not yet fully born.

Then we have Richie’s wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), who is sadly lacking as a character. Wilde reportedly told producers that she had no interest in the part if she was simply going to play another put-upon wife. Well I don’t know what the future holds, but so far this is all she’s been. In all fairness, she did assert herself a bit in the most recent episode, but I’m unsure where it can go. The way things are set up, If she divorces Richie, she’s pretty much out of the narrative; if she doesn’t, she remains stuck in the put-upon wife role. I don't see what other options there are for the character going forward.

Other aspects of the writing are just remarkably lacking in subtlety. Blues performer Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) gets punched in the throat by some mob thugs, which costs him his voice, literally. This is just way too on the noseit's like falling anvil symbolism. How about the guy just gets blackballed for refusing to cooperate with the thugs who took over the label? Or maybe he walks away from music by his own choice, in disgust? These latter options would have felt much less contrived.

In addition, the fact that Kool Herc just so happens to spin in Lester’s building complex is an all-too-amazing (and convenient) coincidence. Generally speaking, the figurative puppet strings on this show are far too plain and obvious for the audience to ignore. It takes me (and many others, I’m sure) out of the show altogether.

There are also too many real-life figures in the storyline. People like Andy Warhol, Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, and Rob Goulet are too well known in reality (particularly to the music aficionados the show is designed to appeal to most), which destroys the verisimilitude, regardless of how great the casting/performance may be. (One review described it as too Forrest Gump, which pretty much nailed it.) I think they would benefit from more original, fictional characters, like the fictional Hannibal—who, unfortunately, appears to have exited the show after leaving Richie’s label in the most recent episode.

And this one might sound like a strange complaint, but the music is almost overwhelming to the point of distraction. In the most recent episode alone (Episode 4) we had Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Curtis Mayfield, among others. If they’re not showing us someone performing live, I’d get away from the overuse of background music.

So yes, this is a lot to overcome. Can they do it? Sure… but it’s going to be an uphill battle and they haven’t given much cause for hope.

 

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