HBO’s New Series – Vinyl

Back in the 70’s, I lived in New York, was part of the work force, and I listened to music. I didn’t do the club scene, nor the disco scene, nor was I a card-carrying member, invested or otherwise, in the world known as Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll.

I knew of Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South which would close in December of 1974, forcing Andy Warhol and his entourage to find a new hangout. I went there once.

CBGB’s on The Bowery, would open in 1973 and I believe I went there once as well. I attended one or two concerts at the Palladium on East 14th Street which had originally been called the Academy of Music.

I would see Van Morrison at the Palladium on October 6th, 1979. I would see the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East on September 23rd, 1970,

and I would see both The Beach Boys and the Allman Brothers bands in Central Park, in 1977 and in 1971 respectively.

It wasn’t that I was on the outside of the music scene looking in. Instead, I was just on the outside.

So when the news broke about HBO, Martin Scorsese, and Mick Jagger joining forces to produce a TV series about the music business in those days so long ago, I didn’t jump out of my shoes with excitement.

Oh, I would definitely plan to see the series, but not for the memories. Rather I’d see it because watching and writing is what I do these days.

Created and produced by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter, Vinyl is more than just a walk on the wild side, or a trip onto those mean streets of New York which for most New Yorkers – the streets that were both real and/or imagined.

Vinyl is the story of Richie Finestra, the CEO of American Century Records. Finestra is played by Bobby Cannavale who simply commands your attention every second he’s on the screen. Let’s make that explicitly clear – Cannavale as Finestra is so good that he elevates the series all by himself.

Cannavale’s Richie Finestra is the centerpiece of the show. He’s the main character, and is the actor who got the top billing. It is almost as if you can’t take your eyes off him – maybe you can blink or head for the fridge as Richie does yet another line of blow. This is a motif that occurs so frequently that you will be thinking – enough already!

But the series is more than just Cannavale. I’ve watched all 5 episodes that have aired, and I’ve got to give kudos to the supporting cast, many of who truly sparkle. Annie Parisse, long ago a prosecutor on Law & Order, plays a woman with a lengthy past with Finestra both professionally and personally. David Proval, who I recall from The Sopranos, is on hand as Finestra’s father. Olivia Wilde plays Finestra’s wife – and currently their marriage is on shaky but expensive ground up in Greenwich, CT.

I’ve been especially impressed with Juno Temple who plays Jamie Vine, at once the office’s sandwich girl and drug provider. She doesn’t want to be a go-fer forever – she wants to be an A & R person who signs acts and bands for the label.

But it is not just the females in the supporting cast who caught my eye. Watch for an intriguing but brief appearance by Andrew Dice Clay as a Radio big shot who controls which DJ’s would play Finestra’s records.

Ray Romano is on hand as Zak Yankovich who handles the business side of American Century. Mick Jagger’s son James Jagger plays the punk rocker Kip Stevens.

The one deserving of the highest degree of praise is Max Casella who plays the head of the A & R Department – Julie Silver.

So much for the actors. As for the story, I can’t bring up any kind of ebullient or effusive praise. The story seems familiar – or said another way – we can describe the show as Mad Men moved out of the ad agency and instead we get a record label. Cannavale’s Finestra isn’t Jon Hamm’ s Don Draper. It just seems that way.

Finestra is dynamic, he’s passionate, and yet you can’t quite like the him. Which is basically how we all felt about Draper. A house in the suburbs, with a trophy wife and kids and a successful career aren’t enough for either of these guys.

OLivia Wilde with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen who starred in the Danish Series Borgen

Olivia Wilde with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen who starred in the Danish Series Borgen

Maybe it is the characters, or maybe it is the milieu’s they work in. In either case, some one would be getting screwed. In Mad Men, it would be the American shopping public as the ad agencies, let’s call them hucksters – pulled the wool over the eyes of the shoppers all in the name of getting accounts and airing the commercials. It was always about the money.

Paul Ben-Victor who plays record mogul Maury Gold

Paul Ben-Victor who plays record mogul Maury Gold

In the music business – if you liked the product you bought it, and if you hated it you didn’t. In this racket it was the artists or musicians who got taken for a ride.

Sign here kid. We want your music to carry our label. You’ll get a big advance against sales, and before the time when the records would be on the racks in the stores, the label would be interested in promotions and distribution. Literally every penny that the label spent in producing the records would be charged back against the advance.  The artists and musicians quite often were lucky to keep the shirts on their backs.

Yeah music has its dark side. But that’s business and dollars. Scorsese and crew have their say against the white men who controlled the recording business and the radio stations basically co-opting the skills and talents of the music makers. The men behind the desks – you know, signing the checks, and the technical people behind the glass in the sound rooms of the studios, and the studio owners, and the people who sold the records, and the club owners who ran the clubs and stadiums and theatrical venues where the music was played – all got their piece of the pie – whether the act succeeded or not.

The artists – not so much.

Ato Essandoh as Lester Grimes - one of Finestra's earliest signings and also one of Finestra's earliest victims

Ato Essandoh as Lester Grimes – one of Finestra’s earliest signings and also one of Finestra’s earliest victims

Vinyl is vibrant – even exciting. It also barrels along at a furious pace that is broken up only to drop the names of the famous into the story. Oh – there’s Alice Cooper, or Andy Warhol, or Lou Reed. On and on and on. And the musical interludes sound fine but more than a few times I was shocked about how poorly the music was synched with the actor supposedly singing.

Yes, there’s plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll in this series. Along with nudity, and even murder. And you’ll soon lose count of the amount of f-bombs that you’ll hear.

Cannavale’s Finestra is killing himself to succeed, or said another way, to satisfy his own ego – even if at the expense of his partners, family, and friends. It is a Don Draper downward spiral – only with more fire-power and set up on a darker and much steeper incline.

This series plays an episode at a time on HBO, and while there’s a whole lot of it that can be criticized, it is compelling. Even for a guy like me – who was in and around the city at the time – but spiritually, miles away from what unfolds in this series.

Want a quick hit of the energy – check out the trailer:

 

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4 thoughts on “HBO’s New Series – Vinyl

    • Danno – while ‘corny’ is not a term that I would use for this show – it is certainly over-the-top in many respects and yet – Vinyl is quite underwhelming in other respects.This is a show about the 70’s and I’ll say this – someone who came after the 70’s and even the 80’s cannot react to Vinyl’s vibes and patterns in the same way as someone who lived through the era.

      Which is too say that to some, the show may indeed be corny, but it is also reflective of the time frame in which it set.

  1. Great review. We don’t get HBO, though I know I have other options to still see it. Yours is the most thorough review I’ve read yet (no surprise, I count on you for that), and I have to say none of them have so far really made me want to see this series. Good to see Ray Romano stretch, though, and I always enjoy seeing David Proval in anything (he’s such a great character actor.

    • Thanks Snakes –

      As I said in the review I wasn’t jumping out of my shoes to see the show. That said – I can say that I’m glad I chose to both watch the show as well as reflect on the show publicly.

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