Vinyl – TV Review (2016) – Film Dispenser

Television February 17, 2016 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

It’s 1973.  The United States is withdrawing from Vietnam.  Nixon tells the nation “I’m not a crook”.  OPEC reduces oil production sending gas prices skyrocketing. And the Supreme Court hands down their landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.  It’s a tumultuous time.

Vinyl, the newest drama from HBO, is set in the world of music producers and record execs which was in a similar state of chaos in the early-70s. What we now consider classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, etc.) was sharing the stage with the early phases of the punk movement that would reach a full boil in 1977 when The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello left the dingy clubs that gave birth to them and burst onto the charts with their debut albums. And don’t forget the cocaine-fueled excess of disco. Studio 54 would open its doors in just a few years while Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever) dances his way into the national zeitgeist.

Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is trying to keep his record label afloat just long enough to sell it to Polygram Records and take a golden (maybe silver) parachute out of the business. His label, American Century Records, is in trouble. Behind his back, other execs refer to it as “American Cemetery Records”. Despite a stretch of recent failures, Richie has “The Ear”. Serving drinks at a dive bar, he listens as someone plays to an empty smoke-filled room. But, Richie hears in that performance the next blues sensation with a platinum album. While his staff of A&R (Arts and Repertoire) execs jeer the debut single of the Swedish ear candy band ABBA, Bobby admonishes them.  “Three bars.  Three bars, and I can tell they’re going to be filling football stadiums.” He still has what it takes in the music business, but somewhere along the way he lost himself. Richie often wears a look of bewilderment on his face, like he’s not quite sure how he finds himself in the position he’s in. He wants bigger things, greater success, but it’s eluding him.

In true anti-hero fashion, Richie proves to be his own worst enemy. He struggles to leave the booze and drugs behind and focus on the music. As the pilot for Vinyl opens, he’s buying cocaine in a seedy neighborhood and cutting the lines with a homicide detective’s business card which is pretty close to hitting bottom. If he can just coax Led Zeppelin into signing with his label, he can dump his artist roster on Polygram and sail off into the sunset, free of the pressures of turning music into a commodity. But, part of him just can’t do it, sabotaging himself along the way because music is his life, and he can’t see himself doing anything else.

Directed by Martin Scorsese with creative input from Mick Jagger, a man at the forefront of the 1970s music scene, Vinyl feels authentic. From period clothes and cars to the dialogue and slang, the series captures the look and feel of the early 1970s. At times, the nostalgia and use of real people and events overwhelm the narrative. Is that band supposed to be The New York Dolls? Is that guy playing Robert Plant? That dude looks a lot like John Bonham. These thoughts and others bounced through my head when I should have been paying more attention to Richie’s plight. Does that mean Vinyl isn’t compelling? Not really.  It just takes a little getting used to.

Bobby Cannavale, in his first starring role, is nothing short of electric. Like Pacino and Deniro before him, he has that Italian Method Actor persona that keeps audiences glued to his every move.  The supporting players are still only vaguely defined after the pilot episode, but I’m pleased to see Ray Romano (Men of a Certain Age, Everybody Loves Raymond) back in front of the camera in a drama, and Doogie Howser sidekick Max Casella looks like he was born to play an A&R man for a 1970s record label. So far, Olivia Wilde is the supportive, frustrated wife behind the successful husband, but Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) has a reputation for writing strong female characters, so I look to see more range from her as the first season unfolds.

Having your pilot directed by Martin Scorsese sounds like a great idea, but an auteur of his distinct vision and style can steal the attention from the story at hand.  Intentional or not, the two-hour pilot endlessly references Scorsese’s filmography.  From the cast that looks like the 1970s characters in Mean Streets to the Henry Hill-style voiceover that comes and goes, this initial installment of Vinyl plays like Martin Scorsese’s Greatest Hits. (Maybe Richie should put that one out on his label.) When the record exec and one of his enforcer cronies have to dispose of a body, the scene unfolds in the red haze cast by the taillights of their car like the impromptu exhumation of Billy Batts in Goodfellas.  I love “Marty” as much as the next film fan, but with his artistic fingerprints all over this pilot, it’s difficult to tell what Vinyl will look and feel like for the rest of its run.

Am I overwhelmed by the greatness of HBO’s latest effort? No. Am I interested enough to keep watching? Definitely.  And in today’s uber-crowded TV market, that’s a pretty high compliment.

Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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