TV Review: ‘Vinyl’

Vinyl renewed Season 2 HBO
Courtesy of HBO

Vinyl” comes outfitted with such a gaudy band and intoxicating setting – reuniting the “Boardwalk Empire” pairing of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, coupled with producer Mick Jagger, star Bobby Cannavale and a 1970s rock ’n’ roll backdrop – that it’s hard not to root for it. The two-hour premiere, though, is a big, messy affair, sometimes mesmerizing, occasionally aggravating, providing a taste of what’s to come while feeling too caught up in stylistic flourishes. All told, this is a huge project that perhaps only HBO could deliver. But so far, the album isn’t quite as good as the liner notes.

Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, a record executive who is introduced at his wit’s end, buying coke on the street and snorting it up with gusto. His frantic situation unleashes a series of flashbacks, not just regarding what brought him to this point, but to his early days in the music business, when he found a signature act and began making inroads into the game.

As it stands, Richie is now the proprietor of American Century Records, which is on the verge of being sold to Polygram, provided that Richie and his central team – which includes right-hand men played by Ray Romano and J.C. MacKenzie – don’t somehow screw up the deal. The fear that could happen triggers what might be called a series of unfortunate events, among them an attempt to re-sign Led Zeppelin – whose manager loathes Polygram because of its German parentage – and a desperate search to unearth new acts.

The product of a lengthy gestation process, “Vinyl” goes beyond just name-dropping, as rock luminaries pass through Richie’s orbit, albeit in a less ostentatious manner than the way “Boardwalk Empire” was built around its real-life mobsters. Winter and company also weave in plenty of amusing ’70s-era references, from Richie’s development team dismissing Abba as a worthy prospect to a second-episode riff involving “Enter the Dragon.”

The knowing nature of this framework is balanced against a music scene filled, not surprisingly, with sex, debauchery and characters seemingly plucked from the “Star Wars” cantina. Those colorful elements intertwine with all sorts of shady corporate shenanigans, from unsold records disappearing to radio-station payola in the form of “$100 handshakes.” The abundant money breeds commensurate excess, perhaps most embodied in an unrecognizable cameo by Andrew Dice Clay as a radio exec who serves as one of those gatekeepers, whose palm, among other things, must be greased.

It’s plenty interesting stuff, including the various creative forces at play in the era, as well as its seamier aspects. Yet even with the benefit of a two-hour launch, the premiere unfolds in a manner that can feel as scattered and undisciplined as the headlining acts – not just in its bouncing chronology, but the extended, dreamlike sequences that seek to convey, for instance, being at a raucous concert in a surreal, drug-addled haze, an experience that even a director as adept as Scorsese can’t help but make look a trifle cliched on the screen.

“Boardwalk” alum Cannavale dominates the premiere and subsequent episodes (five of the 10 were previewed) – perfectly cast as a character described as possessing “a golden ear, a silver tongue and a pair of brass balls.” Alternately charming and mercurial, frenzied and blissed out, his blinding intensity eclipses practically everything around him.

While everyone else feels a tad underdeveloped initially, the story settles down, and the flashbacks gradually flesh out the supporting players, including Olivia Wilde as Richie’s trophy wife, a former model and Andy Warhol protege; Ato Essandoh as the artist who helped launch Richie’s career; and Juno Temple as an ambitious A&R assistant, who discovers a band whose surly lead singer is played by Jagger’s son, James, who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to his old man. (Other than HBO’s “Treme,” few series have organically incorporated more music, which is fun and meticulously replicated but, as on “Empire,” also can bring the story to a periodic halt.)

For HBO, “Vinyl” already feels like a winner conceptually and promotionally – the kind of splashy, big-ticket series destined to unleash premium waves of publicity and attention. Yet despite the overt and intangible dividends associated with a project adorned with so much A-level talent, compared with the standard of prestige HBO dramas, this one plays more like a “B” side.

TV Review: 'Vinyl'

(Series; HBO, Sun. Feb. 14, 9 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in New York by Sikelia Prods., Jagged Prods. and Cold Front Prods. in association with Paramount Television.

Crew

Executive producers, Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter, Victoria Pearman, Rick Yorn, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, John Melfi, Allen Coulter, George Mastras; director, Scorsese; writers, Winter, Mastras; story by Rich Cohen, Jagger, Scorsese, Winter; camera, Rodrigo Prieto; production designer, Bob Shaw; editor, David Tedeschi; music supervisors, Randall Poster, Meghan Currier; casting, Ellen Lewis. 120 MIN.

Cast

Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano, Ato Essandoh, Max Casella, P.J. Byrne, J.C. MacKenzie, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Juno Temple, Jack Quaid, James Jagger, Paul Ben-Victor

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  1. Eileen says:

    I have now watched both episodes of Vinyl. The pilot was okay but not great. The 2nd one titled ” Yesterday No More” was fabulous. I never give up on a series after just watching the pilot I always give it a second chance and I’m thankful I did. Bobby Conivalle is superb and gorgeous. I hope people give it a chance, I’d love to see it be an ongoing series.

  2. Vinyl had all the possibilities of being a class act. It was stylish, had good acting and played to nostalgia . Unfortunately, the writers ran out of ideas and wrote in a scene where a guys head is bashed in and his brains come out. They couldn’t resist playing the violence card…to extreme. It’s a sign of immaturity or lack of creativity if you think that’s the only way to hold an audience. A series written by a kid with no depth can never be a class act.

  3. Tom Rubython says:

    Vinyl is the successor to Mad Men (for advertising just substitute music). We have been waiting seven years for this. Bobby Cannavale is absolutely sensational, arguably one of the greatest TV acting performances ever, I have never see anything as good. He outclasses anything Jon Hamm did on Mad Men. When he walked to that night club and Pillow Talk was playing in the background it brought back so many memories and I immediately realised the people who made this knew exactly what they were about.
    Brain Lowry is truly jaded if he didn’t like this (or at least admire its sheer quality).
    Why doesn’t Variety ask Matthew Weiner (or David Chase) to review Vinyl to settle it.
    Personally I find the drugs, sex and drinking overwhelming but if that is the price to be paid for the most wonderful television then so be be it.

  4. whydoubt says:

    The stylistic unevenness and some timeline misalignments are forgivable, but as soon as an extravagantly messy, violent death must be added in episode 1, I worry about the project. With the two Big Names with historical connections to the insider music world from the period, I was expecting real revelations disguised by drama, not cheap True Detective splash that instantly put the credibility beyond the pale. Bobby’s C’s back story had enough contradictions and guilt to fuel a season without the needless death of perhaps the most over-the-top outrageous single character in the show – I even gasped with laughter at the Wait-Until-Dark leap, only to be disappointed that he wasn’t left to live(Let Him Bleed), scab and hung over, and keep coming back to taunt, insult, abuse and embarrass everyone in his presence. Biggest mistake = not giving Andrew Clay the main focus.

  5. Banton says:

    It’s a very mediocre show with a huge budget. Reminds you of Boardwalk Empire that way. Great Art Direction/Production Design.

  6. wade says:

    Hahaha. Of course. Lowry is not impressed. Seriously, can someone link a review where this douchebag actually had something positive to say about a TV show in the last 5 years?

  7. Robbie says:

    Cannavale has given the same performance in everything he’s ever done(and it ain’t that great), and Scorsese hasn’t made a decent film since Casino. I’ll be vigorously skipping this one.

    • Jackson W says:

      Oh you’re so right. THE DEPARTED only won how many Oscars? Twits like you only show the petty jealousy that permeates Hollywood. Skip off the end of the Santa Monica pier, you certainly won’t be missed.

    • joi karen says:

      Heaven forgive me, but when I learned that the Great Thief, Mick Jagger, was so heavily involved in this one, I immediately began to hope that it would not deliver what he had hoped. I laugh because this reminds me of the poem, “The Book of my Enemy has been Remaindered.” So sorry for the rest of the cast and crew, especially Scorcese, Cannavale, etc. but Mick Jagger has not been a friend to “us”.– ever!!

  8. eddie willers says:

    Even though Olivia Wilde tends to poison everything she’s in, I’ll watch for the soundtrack.

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