Review: Vinyl on HBO

 Posted by on February 16, 2016 at 10:37 am  Reviews & Discussions, Television  Add comments
Feb 162016


Vinyl, HBO’s latest big prestige drama is a 1970s period piece created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire). Sunday night’s two-hour premiere was directed by Scorsese. Vinyl follows the fortunes of record producer Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), once massively successful, whose life and business are crumbling around him. The show opens in New York in 1973, and also flashes back to the 1950s, when Richie started as the manager of Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), aka “Little Jimmy Little”. The cast includes business partner Ray Romano, wife Olivia Wilde, James Jagger (son of Mick) as an up-and-coming rocker, and Juno Temple as the A&R assistant who discovers him.

There’s a lot to love in Vinyl; great cast and great direction chief among them. There are all the inherent pleasures in a period piece—crazy 1970s costumes and hair, gritty old New York the way it used to be, and of course, great music. Plenty of fun name-dropping, and the intermingling of the real with the fictional. The premiere does the job of a premiere, which is to establish some interesting characters and premises, and lets us wonder where it will lead. The characters are both larger than life—bombastic, flamboyant, on edge—and smaller than life—nebbishy, in over their heads. All of this works.

And then there’s the stuff that doesn’t work. There were shots in which I was hyper-aware of budget constraints, such as the camera focusing on the front of a car in order to avoid having too many period cars on-screen. The “gritty New York streets” look too fake too often. Yes, they’re sets or CGI of necessity, and yes, it’s utterly forgivable if the rest of the show turns out to be great, but I noticed. There were anachronisms, which is to be expected. One glaring one was referring to Connecticut as the home of Lyme Disease. That’s over ten years out of date! (While the disease was named in 1975, it was known only to scientists until the mid-1980s.) The concern about anachronisms is not a request for every show to be Mad Men. Vinyl, though, isn’t a show set in an era, it’s very much about the era, and if there’s too much sloppiness, it becomes nothing but name-dropping, like the flashback scene in which Richie and Lester first meet, and they rattle off the names of artists and songs. Remember that? Remember that? It’s a fun game we all play, but it gets old.

Certainly the episode dragged; a two-hour premiere was a bad idea. And it did feel a little played out, like Wolf of Wall Street with rock and roll; Marty doing Marty. All of which could shake out as the series progresses. It also felt a little preachy, like, ‘Hey, kids, let me explain to you what it was really like’. Again, this could be a matter of the show getting its sea legs.

There was one scene—a small moment, really—that seemed to encapsulate the series. At his birthday party, Richie’s wife “outs” him: Despite having been telling stories about it for years, he was never actually at Woodstock. Yes, they had tickets and backstage passes, just as he’s always said, but they blew it off and stayed home to have sex. Richie says he’d never have been able to hold his head up if he admitted he skipped Woodstock. That felt real, and like a lot of “I was really there” stories are, beneath the surface. I was almost there. I would have been there but wasn’t. I was adjacent to being there. We, the audience, watch with knowing eyes as if we were there, but were we? Was Richie? That’s interesting, and more nuanced than turning the show into rock and roll Zelig.

Grade: B


  5 Responses to “Review: Vinyl on HBO”

  1. Deborah,

    I came here expressly to see if you reviewed Vinyl and was so happy to see you did! It definitely has potential. Comparing it to Wolf of Wall Street for the excessive pacing is spot on – both stories could have been better told in half the time.

    Or maybe I’m still ruined for all mid-20th century period pieces because nothing will ever measure up to Mad Men (or Almost Famous, for that matter). As good as Bobby Cannavale is, Richie is no Don Draper. I’ll keep watching, though.

  2. One of the many ways my hometown (Anchorage, Alaska) is different than New York is that we rarely have Hollywood movies shot in town. One exception was Frozen Ground, a police procedural starring Nicholas Cage and John Cusack. Unlike Vinyl, this film had enough budget to do a creditable job with the exteriors, cars, and so forth. Police cars were done in-period and they kept the shots narrowed down to buildings that were in place ca. 1982.

    But they made the night-time, downtown, Anchorage streets look pretty much like any street in films shot in Los Angeles. For one thing, too many people. Even on a summer weeknight, the sidewalks are (were) never that crowded.

    Such are the atmospheric missteps we notice in our respective “backyards”.

  3. i was so happy to see there was discussion on this show that i have eagerly waiting to premiere…i agree that there were some weak points in the pilot, but on second watching of the episode, i was able to get my head- around the overlapping story lines, etc. and was much more satisfied with the direction the show takes. i felt like a weak link may well be the lester grimes angle (too ‘dream girls’ for me…but it could work out in later episodes)…i was pleasantly surprised and engaged in with the performance of jack quaid, and i thought bobby canavale’s take on his character was very engaging, very scorcese in a good way…i liked certain shots, such as andrew dice’s clay’s character playing his drums in a throw-back reference to the famous headley grange recording of “levee”<<one of my favorite zeppelin recordings ever…i think the show has a lot of potential, and i'm enthusiastic about where it could go…p.s. also a huge fan of 'almost famous'

    • Claudia – I did not even connect the drumming in the mansion scene to “When the Levee Breaks” and Headley Grange. Love that (and Zeppelin).

      I liked the Lester Grimes storyline, personally. Like Mad Men, it harkened back to an earlier era in the beginning, much like Don Draper when he sold furs. It also showed how artists of color who were crazy talented were misused to promote marketable fluff (not that it was limited to artists of color, but still).

  4. I watched too. It must be harder and harder for producers to find “gritty New York streets” these days. I watched the short-lived show Public Morals (set in 1960s Hell’s Kitchen). Ed Burns would sometimes tweet about where they had filmed a scene. Brooklyn has some warehouses and that sort of thing, but now that so much of Brooklyn is trendy and getting cleaned-up it’s gotta be a challenge.

    I agree that the two-hour premiere may have been somewhat of a mistake. But I’m going to keep watching.

    I’ve become a big fan of Ray Romano through his roles on Parenthood and Men of a Certain Age. Glad he is on this show too.

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