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Review: HBO's Vinyl Season 1

By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla

Rock and roll, man. Like the first time you heard it. It’s fast, it’s dirty, it smashes you over the head.

                                                                                   - Richie Finestra

Vinyl is one of the most ambitious and heralded projects to make it to HBO. This series, which was recently renewed and then not renewed, brings together the star power of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, who are co-producers of this gritty, soulful and  often violent look back at the music industry as it was in 1973 when punk, hip-hop and disco were slowly surfacing in New York City.

Originating from Mick Jagger’s desire to tell the tale of the music industry at one of its most explosive eras, Vinyl’s been on the back burner for Scorsese for some time now.

Focused on record executive and cokehead extrordinaire Richie Fienstra (played to perfection by a fire breathing Bobby Cannavale), his model-wife (Olivia Wilde) and a motley cast of characters that make up the talent as well as industry side of the music world which struggles to find and promote the next big act.

Vinyl takes a no nonsense look at the music industry and doesn't disguise the harsh realities that go beyond the sex, drugs and rock n' roll ethos. We see how musicians are easily exploited by labels, how payola and radio play dictate who gets to sell records as well as the intricacies of mob involvement in the entertainment business.

Vinyl is large and ambitious. It aims to mix the insider tension of the music Industry in the 70’s as well as its demands and excesses in the same vein as Mad Men managed to for the advertising industry in the 60’s. If you like movies like Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, then Vinyl is likely your cup of tea.

Set in New York in the early 70’s, locales are portrayed and replicated with astounding accuracy. They even managed to CGI graffiti  on to streets and subway cars to bring that time to life. Accurate set design, pin-point wardrobe as well as all the groovy hairstyles of the age are represented in detail.

Music fans will revel in the various mentions and on-screen appearances of iconic and sadly long-gone musical artists which are sewn in as part of the tapestry of Vinyl’s bold story. These short and sweet musical love notes are what make Vinyl worth watching. There are specific scenes, like David Bowie singing Suffragette City, Bob Marley and the Wailers performing as John and Yoko canoodle in a booth, the New York Dolls literally bringing down a packed house and Elvis in his Las Vegas purgatory.

Motley Crew: This is American Century Records

These appearances make the show interesting,  first episode sets a heady precedent with the New York Dolls rocking out in a condemned building until it collapses. We also get glimpses of Karen Carpenter, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Bob Marley. John Lennon and Yoko Ono,  Alice Cooper, Elvis Presley, Johnny Thunders and DJ Kool Herc to name a few played to eerie perfection by various actors. 

It is these dreamy (or drunken)  Easter Egg snatches of storied musical acts, executed with a delightful stylishness, that make Vinyl a standout show but what drives the story are the characters in bad trouble behaving badly. 

If  Mad Men was all about booze fuelled office drama, then Vinyl is a montage of coke snorting, heroin shooting debauchery which really shows how the 70’s were the golden age of drug use. The drug scenes are alarming and at times feel self-serving but do add authenticity to what is really a period drama. 

In terms of spectacle, Vinyl does have much to offer. The show is exquisitely filmed and manages to sustain neurotic tension across multiple scenes. Actor’s really get to shine and surprise audiences here. Olivia Wilde shows uncharacteristic range in her portrayal of Devon, trophy wife to Cannavale’s Ritchie who is a time bomb going off the deep end.

Cannavale plays a frenetic and frayed record executive torn between the purity of his love for music and the reality of leading a struggling label through it’s most  perilous time. After refusing to get bought out by mega-label Polygram, American Century Records struggles to sign the next big act.

Ray Romano is simply sublime in his portrayal of Zak Yanchovic, erstwhile partner and frenemy to Ritchie Finestra. The raw depth of emotion and that the show squeezes out of Romano is impressive and he strikes various comedic chords at just the right time.

Andrew Dice Clay is sensational as the debauched radtio station mogul Buck Rogers who, after being snubbed by Donny Osmond, goes into a coke-fueled bender that becomes one of the key turning points in the story. Other standouts in the cast include Juno Temple as a starry eyed yet steely wannabe A&R executive, Ato Essandoh as bluesman turned manager Lester Grimes, Max Casella as implosive record executive Julie Silver and Olivia Wilde as Finestra's estranged wife.

The best way to enjoy Vinyl is to not overthink it. Some episodes are simply bombastic and piled with wall-to-wall tension, while others feel like the next day after a bender and feel uneasy. I think that's part of Vinyl's purpose, to serve as a time machine that puts the viewer in the centre of the action. I found myself glued to some scenes and let other scenes play in the background. 

Vinyl's weakness is that it tries to be too much like The Sopranos or Mad Men, which takes away from the potency of its topic of musicians, labels and the 70's. Many mobster and office drama scenes look and feel like things we've already seen before.

Vinyl is an amazing concept and the first season was clearly a high-level production. The show can be messy and confusing and a little bit too emo for many viewers. I grew up in the 70's, I still think some of the best and most creative music came from that generation, but I don't remember things being so dismal and dreadful.

It's a damn shame that Vinyl was cancelled on its first season, I think the show deserves a chance to show more and It feels like the story of Richie Finestra and American Century Records is still far from over.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 

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