By James Hancock February 15th, 2016
When I think of Martin Scorsese and rock and roll, the first thing that pops into my head is his brilliant 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen that movie but it is one of those rare films where we see an inspired filmmaker in his prime working with artists that define everything great about one of the best periods in American music. So when I learned that Martin Scorsese had signed on to direct the premiere to HBO’s new series Vinyl, a show about the music industry set in the early 1970s, I might have built up some unrealistic expectations on what the show would deliver. I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s premiere (which is as long as many feature films) and I’m watching it again as I write this review, but my point is that Vinyl is a very solid show that delivers everything we expect from HBO’s consistently solid programming, but nothing more. Created by rock and roll icon Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen, Terence Winter and Scorsese, Vinyl’s premiere focuses primarily on music executive Richie Finestra, played with incredible swagger by Bobby Cannavale. At the start of the story, Finestra has already made piles of money in the music industry while accumulating his fair share of enemies along the way. When a deal with Led Zeppelin falls apart, he becomes desperate to keep his company relevant as he struggles to discover new talent while negotiating the sale of his company to German investors. It is an unhinged story full of drugs, violence, sex and total chaos, but I can’t help but acknowledge the nagging feeling I have that the show is not nearly as subversive and rebellious as it would like to be.
Scorsese is one of my all-time favorite directors and I am loathe to accuse him of repeating himself, but he definitely falls back on some familiar tropes in his direction of Vinyl’s first episode. There are an abundance of shots seemingly ripped straight from Taxi Driver while many of the verbal and violent exchanges between characters feel like diluted flashbacks from Goodfellas. We’re also treated to a pretty graphic orgy (I’m not complaining) reminiscent of the excesses of The Wolf of Wall Street. Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but this show really leans on our presumed sentimental affection for the rock and roll of this period. At some point that show will have to thrive on its own merits irrespective of how great the music might be. The cast is outstanding although some characters enjoy more engaging subplots than others. Andrew Dice Clay steals the show anytime he appears on screen, but for my money Juno Temple is the real star of the show as Jamie Vine, a young woman of fierce ambition aggressively pursuing her dream of becoming an A&R rep. Olivia Wilde, as Cannavale’s neglected wife, feels a little wasted so far, but my fingers are crossed her story evolves in the episodes to come. I genuinely want this show to do well. Any show featuring the music I love with near-constant sex and debauchery is a show I’m keen on watching. With Mick Jagger and Scorsese’s input, I can tell HBO wants nothing more than to create a worthy tribute to the New York music scene of 1970s. Whether or not Vinyl will just be a good show or possibly a great one remains to be seen.
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