Like a lot of my generation, I was hooked on Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous the instant I encountered it. I might have been a teenage punk but Almost Famous‘ romanticism was hard to resist as a kid who grew up with music obsessed parents, the film as much a testament to the little people whose love for song fuels the industry as for the rock gods who dominate the critical commentary. I still nurse a soft spot for the work, despite my awareness of its basic fluff status, so consider me a prime demographic for Vinyl, the star-studded new HBO series that seeks to offer a dark, cynical counterpoint to the rose hued mythological works Almost Famous sits alongside. Helmed by the ’70s trifecta of Martin Scorcese, Terence Winter and Mick fucking Jagger, Vinyl screams authenticity and grit at every turn but that’s all just distraction from the fact that it’s less true to the spirit of music than the fluff it references and tries to distance itself from.
Set in the early ’70s as rock’s early acolytes are settling into what will be a quarter century of acquisitions, coke-fueled bad decisions and mediocrity, Vinyl is the story of the fictional American Century Records, specifically its figurehead, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a former blues obsessive who has sold his soul not to the devil at the crossroads but to foreign conglomerates and, uh, Donny Osmond. The show opens with Finestra in the midst of a desperate coke buy, so hungry to get some product up his nose he rips apart his new car, only to be interrupted by lunatic New York Dolls fans descending on the Mercer Arts Center, hopped up on musical ecstasy and, well, probably some speed. It’s a classic opener, a juxtaposition of this former romantic gone staid and the pretty young things who are still hip to the message, broke and lean and hungry but far more alive than their peer turned big gun. Fittingly, the bookend to this scene, which dramatizes the infamous collapse of the Mercer, has been called out the most by critics for its inauthenticity, leading to a curious ouroboros of critics not grasping the lies and fiction that make up so much rock truth even as Scorcese, Winter and crew spend the rest of the episode paying more authentic tribute to cocaine than music.
Or maybe that’s not quite fair. Perhaps it’s better to say that Vinyl is less a show about rock than it is a show about Martin Scorcese and the coke focus and New York grime are just minor elements of the Scorcese canon. There are as many references to prior Scorcese works as there are rock history tidbits, particularly in a Goodfellas cribbing murder subplot, and the show’s biggest problem is that it often feels like one of those late night informercials for a Best of the ’70s compilation, which is an issue that is consistent with Scorcese’s latter day lapses into music-licensing-as-narrative. The show rolls out musical cues so frequently you never get much of a chance to actually sit down with and inhabit any of its supposedly Larger Than Life characters and it’s appropriate that many of its scenes are separated by dreamy lip sync segments, hammy impressionists miming along to music history between sections where bland reinterpretations of rock standbys are performed. Vinyl might want you to view these sequences as holy illustrations, but instead they’re clueless padding, self-indulgent and overly stylized, much like the ’80s incarnations of these same ’70s rock figures.
Even if the two hour pilot had enlisted the help of an editor willing to rein Scorcese’s worst directorial impulses, the show’s story is too unremarkable at this point to stand out. Finestra, like more or less every Scorcese and Winter protagonist, is in the midst of a major life crisis. The label he founded after splitting off from a mob-funded blues label is in the middle of being assimilated by Polygram, a German operation that is eager to drop the “American” part of the brand and start making some money off “the Led Zeppelins.” Richie and his super ’70s flunkies are contrasted with the ultra square German (and Dutch) execs, only giving in to the buyout because their overconsumption has diminished their resources and also their talent. There’s a lot of talk about Richie’s golden ear and how it allowed American Century to get to the top of the heap, but the time in which Vinyl is set is a down period, with Richie loudly stating that the rest of the industry now calls the label “American Cemetery” (a reference to RCA Records, which gained the reputation for being the Recording Cemetery of America). On one end, Richie’s wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) and partner Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) are pushing him towards taking the buyout and settling into an easy life, but on the other end, the emerging punk culture (symbolized by Juno Temple’s ambitious office assistant and James Jagger’s piss poor Richard Hell imitation) and its environment of risk, furor and passion is tempting him back into the fray.
In an excellent piece that went live today, Richard Hell himself weighed in on Vinyl and stated that he is “tired of [Scorcese’s] relentless framing of life as nothing but competition among men for power — represented by money, willingness to betray and kill, cocaine, and pussy.” Vinyl has moments where it deviates from these topics and unsurprisingly they’re usually the show’s best scenes, though even they are frequently tarnished by their framing as some other Scorcese reference, as is the case with a thuggish beat down delivered to an artist Richie has burned on his way up to the top of the food chain. Hell criticizes the show for its lack of interest in the musicians themselves, a telling flaw in a show supposedly about music, and it’s true that the show seems more interested in side characters from the sleaziest days of the industry, whether it’s Richie’s mentor figure or Buck, the radio personality played by Andrew Dice Clay, who gets perhaps the longest and most involved plot in the pilot. But those topics forcibly intrude on the music scenes too, from James Jagger’s declaration that all he cares about is “fucking and fighting” to an extremely awkward scene where Richie’s attempts to placate Robert Plant over contract issues ends with Plant pointing to two “birds” and shouting that he’s going to do to them what Richie’s lawyers have done to him on royalties.
Vinyl aims for truth and raw realness but it lacks passion, making the pilot the equivalent of a legendary band who’ve gotten so rich and bloated their shows can’t rise above workhorse bar band status. Almost Famous might be maudlin and simplistic at points, but in a best case scenario Vinyl would have at least shared more heart with it, the characters’ love of music being obvious without declarations to that effect. With Scorcese less involved in later episodes, there’s a chance Vinyl will evolve into its own thing rather than Goodfellas: The Musical, but there’s also now the question of whether Vinyl is even remarkable at all in a world where Empire exists, arguably providing a more realistic (and diverse and interesting) portrayal of the industry just by sheer virtue of its embrace of the self-mythologizing that has always been at the center of pop. Until Vinyl steps out of its own creators’ shadows, it’s barely at opening band status let alone headliner.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover