Image A- Sound A Extras B-
"Pilot," "Yesterday Once More," "Whispered Secrets," "The Racket," "He in Racist Fire," "Cyclone," "The King and I," "E.A.B.," "Rock and Roll Queen," "Alibi"
by Bill Chambers A feeling of déjà vu pervades HBO's "Vinyl", and not just because it's so prototypical of the network's taste in weekly dramas. The first--and simultaneously last--ten episodes are a somewhat hellish loop of stylistic motifs, crutches, and tics. Refrains are a musical conceit, and this is a show about the record industry, so maybe there's a thematic defense for the repetition. But with all the imbibing that goes on on screen, "Vinyl"'s periodicities (running out of synonyms!) begin to make most sense as cues to take a shot. This review should provide all the drinking prompts you need while also serving as a post-mortem for the series, which got cancelled just as I sat down to write about it.1 At the risk of beating a dead horse, here's what went wrong--and, occasionally, right--with "Vinyl".
Too much Richie Finestra snorting coke and arching his back to the heavens.
In his STEREOGUM review of "Vinyl"'s 112-minute pilot, punk rocker turned author and pop-culture critic Richard Hell--whose essay on The Devil, Probably explained Bresson to me in a way that I finally understood--writes, presumably from experience, that "it’s just wrong to over and over again show them (usually from above) violently throwing their sweaty heads back grimacing in cross-eyed transport the moment they inhale a flake. Cocaine is not like getting a cattle prod up your butt.... A warm smile would suffice." The reason it happens a lot in the first episode is because co-creator (with Mick Jagger and Terence Winter) Martin Scorsese directed it; the reason it happens a lot in later episodes is because imitating Scorsese is fun and the other directors have license to do so. It's an iconic Scorsese image, but it's more cartoonishly removed from human behaviour than ever in this iteration. The problem, I think, is Winter, who's worked so narrowly within Scorsese's wheelhouse in their three collaborations to date ("Boardwalk Empire", "Vinyl", and The Wolf of Wall Street, which he scripted) that Scorsese's had nowhere to go but over the top.
Richie Finsetra (Bobby Cannavale) is the head of fictitious record label American Century and "Vinyl"'s bad-boy lead, a recovering addict who relapses in the premiere and goes on a coke-and-booze bender that lasts eight episodes with little respite. He's the archetypal cable-TV antihero--white and affluent, a master in his field with impulse-control issues; a charismatic asshole--with one exception: he's exhausting, made all the more so by the actor playing him. Cannavale can't do wired, exactly; he's such a droopy hulk that his rendition of junkie mania is a bit like the St. Bernard wreaking havoc in Beethoven. Richie's trauma-inducing role in the fatal beat-down of a promoter (beached whale Andrew Dice Clay, who keeps saying Donny Osmond's name as if it's a self-fulfilling punchline) who's gone coke-rabid is what knocks him off the wagon. Not long after, he becomes a born-again rock snob while witnessing a performance by the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center that brings the house down--literally on top of him. Post-pilot, Richie is a little like the poor man's Jeff Bridges-from-Fearless, acting quixotic and invincible ever since his near-death experience but truthfully suicidal because of survivor's guilt, having taken a life without paying the ultimate price. That's interesting, I suppose, but the murder subplot never doesn't feel like a gratuitous "hook" in a show blessed with such a unique and potent milieu, and it paves the way for more gangster shit from a former writer of "The Sopranos" (Winter) who apparently can't leave that series behind.2
If you didn't know or haven't surmised, "Vinyl" takes place in the early-'70s. The collapse of the Mercer--a bravura sequence that is vintage Scorsese in its propulsive energy and mounting dread, with Richie's splintering psyche appearing to manifest cracks in the building's walls--places it in the summer of '73. (Scorsese is all over the killing of Clay as well, but in that case he's doing a command performance of the "Atlantis" scene from Goodfellas for fanboy Winter and again practically lampooning himself with a level of violence that makes Billy Batts look like he's being tickled.) It's the parallel dawn of disco and punk, a rich vein in music history to tap for stories, though I'm starting to think TV keeps doing period pieces so the men in charge can write sexist dialogue without recrimination and even score brownie points as if tut-tutting dinosaur ideals in feminist solidarity. So they can sidestep female protagonists altogether, even, because protagonists need agency.
Too much Mrs. Finestra just staring.
With those extraterrestrial eyes and that Mona Lisa smile, Olivia Wilde's face makes her something of a walking Kuleshov Effect, capable of conveying all Seven Deadly Sins at once. "House M.D." leaned on her for reaction shots, because whether the titular doctor's misanthropy bemused or appalled you, she seemed sympathetic. Here scenes depicting the nascence of Devon (Wilde) and Richie's relationship are filtered through her ambivalent gaze, making them as obviously regretful as they are wistful. That's effective, given how tonally inscrutable they are (like when Richie maybe-rapes his future wife in the ladies room shortly after they've just met), but having her space out to catalyze flashbacks quickly becomes a comical device that exacerbates the character's static quality. Gorgeous Devon has three modes, all of which are passive: comatose, wet blanket, and HBO (sexy/naked).
She's a hothouse flower, raising two kids practically alone while Richie acts like he's a bachelor. The standard Terence Winter shorthand for marriage, in other words, made no more original by the circus milieu of Devon's previous life as a photographer and one of Warhol's muses. (Richie first encounters her at a Velvet Underground set.) She gave it all up--including, we glean, drugs and alcohol--to mother Richie's children and every now and then bait the talent on Richie's hook. It's silly how in "Vinyl", like in "Boardwalk Empire" before it, you can never just have been a paperboy, you had to have been Al Capone's paperboy. Same when Devon finally leaves her husband: She should be staying at the Plaza--one character actually voices this--but shleps the kids to the Chelsea instead, ostensibly because she's a bohemian at heart, but really because the show wants to squeeze in as many cultural landmarks of the era as possible. "Vinyl" is Walk Hard with a straight face.
Speaking of which.
Too much "Hey, isn't that so-and-so?".
"Vinyl", to its credit, doesn't want to fictionalize everything to the point that it has to reinvent music history from scratch. (One of the things that's kept me from wholly embracing AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire" is that its misfit heroes have now taken credit for an absurd number of 1980s computing innovations.) But as it's not a biopic, lookalikes aren't the way to go, either, yet twenty minutes or so into the pilot, Richie is suddenly interacting with Robert Plant in a scene that is the nadir of this low ebb in Scorsese's directing career. Scorsese doesn't strike me as a Led Zeppelin guy to begin with (they're too pretentious), and Zebedee Row's Plant, from his irreconcilably soft features to his crimped hair--Plant had curls, man--to his skateboard-kid swagger, is as contemptuous as it is contemptible. What is this, Showtime? Subsequent cameos find "Johnny Thunders" showing up to say something at once obvious and unlikely, "Mama Cass" appearing as a partygoer solely to tee up a fat joke (sigh)3, and "David Bowie" coming off as a humourless prig in an episode dedicated to his memory.
Marginally more successful are the caricatures of England Dan and John Ford Coley (who? Exactly), Alice Cooper (thanks to Cooper's identity being a costume to start with), and Elvis Presley, because impersonating Elvis is a national pastime and because this Elvis--slowed by pills like a 78 playing at 33⅓--isn't the popular persona against which all imitations of the King are judged. Despite his winning the World Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in 2007, the verisimilitude and pathos of Shawn Klush's performance surprises--it's not Vegas-broad at all. HBO should adapt those Peter Guralnick biographies and give Klush a call.
One of the major stylistic conceits of the series is to have songs performed half-diegetically--that is to say, on screen, but outside the literal narrative. It's Greek chorus, but it's also more expressionistic than that. Scorsese gets the Dennis Potter-ness of the gimmick, having always used pop music to similarly ironic-nostalgic effect. When, in the pilot, Ruth Brown (Catherine Harris-White) glides into the eerily vacant offices of American Century with her back to the camera, seemingly levitated and towed forwards by the force of her "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean," it's a bracing reminder that Scorsese hasn't allowed himself to get this abstract since the one-two commercial failure of Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead, and it's one of the few times that "Vinyl" suggests a genuine, or not merely convenient, love of music. And for all the series' emphasis on punk, the dirty appeal of rock 'n' roll is never clearer than when Bo Didley (Kareem Bunton) materializes in a halo of liquid smoke to play his self-titled blues anthem. It's a vision from the folkloric Crossroads, at once divine and vaguely, enticingly sinister. Without Scorsese at the helm, reprisals of the gag in later episodes are more simplistic, in emotional content as well as execution, and the doppelgängers become distractingly precious and obvious. "Bo Didley"'s appearance, prompted by Richie receiving a replica of his signature guitar, shows how the rock-star fantasy transcends class, race, and other social boundaries, whereas what's communicated by Buddy Holly (Philip Radiotes) turning up in episode 64 to sing "Rave On" is that Richie's gone mad.
Oh, and as Andy Warhol, John Cameron Mitchell does an amazing David Spade.
Too much nepotism.
Much like Hugo was Scorsese's extravagant gift to his daughter, "Vinyl" was die-cut to give James Jagger, the offspring of executive producer/executive music producer/co-creator Mick Jagger, a major role. Jagger--James, that is--plays Kip, the British expat lead singer of punk act The Nasty Bits, whose evolution from pet project of aspiring A&R scout Jamie (Juno Temple) to potential company saviour is the season's most significant throughline outside of Richie's soap-opera turmoil. Allegedly, (James) Jagger studied at the Lee Strasberg school, but the writers perpetually limit his emotional palette to that of a six-year-old and there's nothing of his father's devious intelligence behind that inherited sneer. The idea that bratty Kip is based on Richard Hell, published poet and author of seventeen books, someone Lester Bangs looked up to, is patently absurd. They're both junkies, but Kip's heroin use proves as perfunctory a detail as the broken window panes in his apartment, and no more serious.
I don't pretend to be an expert on the punk scene, but I always thought that punk was a political statement and The Nasty Bits have no such reason to exist. The show's official punk ambassadors are, quite simply, dum-dums, and because "Vinyl" doesn't have a satirical bone in its body, it comes across as the kind of pessimistic depiction of a new youth movement you'd find on issue-driven episodes of bad TV from the actual 1970s. "Vinyl" is too iconoclastic for its own good; it's one thing to expose the vapidity of the music industry--making the talent look equally foolish and turning art into divine luck makes fools of all but the most cynical viewers as well. My favourite scene in the entire series has former, embittered bluesman Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) proving with a medley that the chord progression E-A-B is the hidden-in-plain-sight foundation of many a pop song, from Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" to CCR's "Travelin' Band": It's an oasis on a show parched for demonstrations of the creative process, and it's the rare example of "Vinyl" conveying the joy of making music rather than the misery of being associated with it. Of course what The Nasty Bits glean from Lester's lesson is that the lone personal composition he throws into the mix would make a great punk song. "Vinyl" is never more honest about the scummy business of rock 'n' roll than it is in this instance, showing white artists co-opting black talent, but again it lacks the satirical edge to asterisk The Nasty Bits' victorious debut as a signed band, which is predicated on the success of this catchy tune ("Woman Like You"), or to tongue-in-cheekily acknowledge that this is par for the Jagger course.
I could go on about Kip/James Jagger, but the most maddening thing about him is that better characters and potential protagonists are yoked to his subplot, squandering Jamie's promising arc (a young woman shrewdly usurping her male colleagues) on a parochial lesson about fucking the talent and bringing Lester--who becomes The Nasty Bits' unlikely manager as oblique revenge for having his windpipe (and thus his singing career) crushed by not-very-bright contract enforcers--to a narrative dead-end after teasing his redemption. I long for the Altman version of "Vinyl" that surveys a cross-section of talent, not just these record-company jokers and their Great White Hope. What does Mick Jagger care about The Label, anyway, or Scorsese for that matter? It's a sign of the times that HBO spent millions mounting a gritty/glittery (grittery?) peek behind the curtain of a brand, but it's equally telling and certainly more encouraging that audiences summarily rejected the macho bullshit that resulted. Did I mention how many times Richie and his put-upon colleague Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) punch each other? It's too much.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Prematurely designated "The Complete First Season," HBO's fast-tracked Blu-ray release of "Vinyl" splays the series across four dual-layer discs in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation. I have issues with the show's look that are possibly immaterial, but here goes nothing. When HBO greenlit "Vinyl", they told Scorsese and DP Rodrigo Prieto they could shoot the pilot on film if they so desired, as long as the remaining episodes were photographed digitally. After toying with using 16mm, the pair decided instead to simulate 16mm by adding grain in post (via new real-time texture-mapping software called LiveGrain) to an HD image captured with the ARRI Alexa--a practice that was then continued by Prieto's successor from episode 2 on, Reed Morano. The problem is that film grain is information, like pixels, or dots on a pointilist painting. That's why reducing it with DVNR is controversial, because in so doing you're throwing out fine detail. Conversely, by adding grain to a clean image, you're obscuring fine detail. Mock film stock is a cute thing to do in short bursts, an absolutely toxic practice for an entire TV series. The Instagram patina of "Vinyl" is ridiculous, on Blu-ray perhaps more than it was on cable, where bandwidth limitations would've denoised the image somewhat. The tack-sharpness of this transfer is mainly in service of the faux-grain, though there are some lovely tableaux, aided by elastic dynamic range and a richly-saturated palette. And while the AM-radio colour grade--lots of gold, brown, and cyan--can be heavy-handedly evocative in its own right, it's not one-note, nor does it dogmatically downplay the candy-coloured lighting of underground clubs, which ultimately provides an Oz-like contrast to the drabber comings and goings at American Century.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is across-the-board terrific at reproducing music, both "live" and sourced. It should come as a surprise to no one that the pilot has the most feature-film-like mix, giving playful attention to the surrounds. The apocalyptic climax really puts the LFE channel to work but the savage beating of Andrew Dice Clay isn't too shabby in that respect, with flashbacks to it generally exhibiting the most emphatic use of bass in "Vinyl" proper. Attending three of the episodes are commentary tracks presumably recorded before the series bowed, when hopes for it were running high. First up, 1.2, "Yesterday Once More," reunites Cannavale, Wilde, Romano, and episode director Allen Coulter with Winter, who drops the biggest bombshell at the top: that it's pronounced "Canna-valley"--all this time I'd been saying "Canna-vail." Interestingly (maybe to me alone), Winter cops to fudging the 08/19/73 release date of Enter the Dragon by a few weeks in order to include a clip of it yet fails to acknowledge the more galling anachronism of said clip containing footage exclusive to the movie's 1998 restoration. For what it's worth, the show's jocular humour is funnier with these commentators supplying a laugh track. Winter returns for 1.3, "Whispered Secrets," joining actors Temple (speaking in her native English accent), Max Casella, and Jack Quaid plus director Mark Romanek. By this point my patience for the mixing of these yakkers was wearing thin (the episode's own audio competes for attention), but Romanek's unusually thoughtful reflections on the filmmaking process kept me listening. Lastly, Winter, Cannavale, and Wilde reteam for "E.A.B." (1.8), on which they're joined by music supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier. This group particularly reveres Essandoh, allowing his remarkable performance5 of the titular medley to play out mostly in silent awe.
Also appending each instalment of "Vinyl" are HBO's patented "Inside the Episode" featurettes (3-4 mins. apiece, HD), wherein Winter does a blogger's job of incrementally recapping the show. Weirdly tinged with insecurity, these don't reflect well on anybody. Disc 4 contains the only long-form video-based extra, "Making 'Vinyl': Recreating the '70s" (19 mins., HD), which begins with a brisk summary of the project's origins--Mick pitched it to Marty as a feature, but it stalled in development until Terry intervened with the idea of turning it into a TV series--and proceeds to set the scene for a far more interesting show about "the year that punk, disco, and hip-hop all were invented within a six-month period of each other, within about a five-mile radius of each other in New York City." (Those are Winter's words.) For the most part this is about the valiant effort to get the period details right, and the piece skims enough of the surface to convey what an enormous undertaking the production was from a creative standpoint. While I would've liked a little more on how they dressed the exteriors, the bit about compositing graffiti is just fascinating. If you've made it this far, know that these Blu-rays are bundled with a digital copy of the series and housed in a swingtray keepcase, complete with a grooved slipcover that feels luxurious to the touch.
1. Originally HBO renewed it with the intention of replacing Terence Winter as showrunner, but that was poor politics. A cancellation preserves the dignity of one of the network's heavy hitters.
2. The head mobster's name is Corrado. Not a brilliant idea, to directly homage "The Sopranos"--arguably the greatest TV series of all time--in the midst of...this.
3. Has Terence Winter ever been responsible for anything as beautiful as Mama Cass's cover of "Dream a Little Dream of Me"?
4. Unfortunately (because it's the only one directed by a woman (Nicole Kassell)), this episode, "Cyclone," is the biggest dud of the bunch. Here Richie, in some kind of drug-induced fugue state, takes a road trip with the ghost (spoiler!) of Ernst (Carrington Vilmont), an old funtime asshole buddy he liberated from this plane years before in a car crash (to our retroactive applause). It was far too early in the show's run for "Vinyl" to get so TV tropey, and the hackery extends to the alleged Big Twist, where Ernst turns his back to the camera to reveal, gasp, that half his head is missing--a moment Anglophiles will recognized as poached whole-cloth from the BBC series "River". "Cyclone" is so enervatingly derivative that not even Olivia Wilde starring in her own mini-version of La belle noiseuse within the episode can redeem it.
5. There's just one problem with this scene: Essandoh's supposedly useless voice has a gravelly appeal that would have no trouble selling records in the age of Joe Cocker.