Vinyl: Season One
Created by: Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter & Rich Cohen
Starring: Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Paul Ben-Victor, Max Casella, Ray Romano, James Jagger, Ato Essandoh, Juno Temple
With Mick Jagger’s illustrious run in the music industry and Martin Scorsese’s dramatic film-making credentials this much hyped drama set in the record industry in the early seventies seemed born to be must watch television; especially when it comes with HBO’s cinematic quality production values and established clout. Does this golden alliance of talent and network create a platinum hit, or a one-hit wonder?
Bobby Canavale (Blue Jasmine, Antman) is Richie Finestra, the co-founder and president of the struggling American Century Records. Backing out of selling the company at the last moment, Finestra tries to revive American Century’s fortunes through a series of drugs and booze fuelled benders, run ins with shady mobsters and the police and a pursuit to find the next big rock ‘n’ roll superstars.
The casting is the best part of Vinyl. If at first Richie Finestra feels like a Frankenstein’s monster mish-mash of other Scorsese leads (he is in particular debt to Di Caprio in Wolf of Wall Street, a film written by Vinyl co-creator and showrunner Terence Winter) Cannavale is too accomplished an actor to let the character fall into caricature, even if it does take him a few episodes to make Finestra feel at all unique. Jagger’s son, James, puts in a strong turn as the lead singer of proto-punk band the Nasty Bits, quickly establishes the character as one of Vinyl’s most interesting. Essandoh is full of a fire as a former blues singer whom Finestra has screwed over in the past and Ray Romano enjoys stretching his serious acting chops by adding flesh to what could have been a bare-bones role as Finestra’s closest friend – and often conscience.
Richie’s wife Devon is the weak link and it’s through no fault of Olivia Wilde who is clearly a talented actress stuck with a boring, whiny and ultimately quite pointless role. Before long she’s dragging serious energy out of the show and her tangential storylines detract from where you want the action to be: with Finestra at American Century Records.
Surprisingly given the creative talent involved it’s actually the storytelling which lets Vinyl down. In the early episodes the storylines seem derivative and clichéd: there’s a game of ‘spot the rival HBO show we stole this from’ game to be played before the writers begin to take the plots in new directions and it’s part of a wider problem that nothing seems to be really happening. Build at a glacial pace can be all well and good but it seems to be a good few episodes before the writers think to include any real drama in proceedings and it’s entirely possible to skip whole episodes without losing track of the narrative threads.
Episodes also seem to be padded with a never ending string of almost entire songs playing without anything actually happening which detracts from the dramatic flow and muddies the pacing even more. As the series goes on the creative team do manage a much better job of integrating these musical interludes into the narrative structures of the episodes, but in the early going they just feel like extra ad breaks – albeit with a good soundtrack – and just make the show feel unnecessarily bloated.
While things on the whole improve as the series progresses, later episodes still contain some jarring storytelling decisions: for example a late attempt to introduce some hostility between members of the Nasty Bits before a major gig feels awkward and clumsy; and a couple of twists are tiresomely predictable.
Obviously a show about a record label in the early seventies has a rich archive of music to choose from for its soundtrack and Vinyl doesn’t disappoint on that front. There is an argument that by trying to touch on the punk-rock revolution, the rise of the dance scene and superstar DJ’s and turntable mixing and the legacy of blues rock Jagger and Scorsese are using their immense knowledge of the subject matter to say too much rather than focussing; but in fairness only the Nasty Bits band are focused on as main characters and the other elements are only included as and when they are needed to progress the story-arcs of the existing characters.
The Verdict: The sense that not much is actually going on pervades this stylishly made drama. The strong cast work hard to add meat to their roles and try to create interesting characters and while the soundtrack is fantastic, it often feels to come at the expense of drama. Still, it’s a solid start for Vinyl and the foundations are in place for an improved Season Two.