We’re living in the new golden age of television, a time that has seen so much rich and detailed long-form storytelling. On a narrative level, television (and all its modern equivalents) has surpassed many feature films and a lot of big screen talent is migrating to the small screen. Master auteur Martin Scorsese is no stranger to HBO, having delivered period gangster drama The Boardwalk Empire and he now teams with Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter to deliver Vinyl, a 1970s record industry drama. On paper this is a real winner but it fails to reach the level of greatness that it should achieve.
Vinyl sticks close to the template laid out by the much (much) superior Mad Men. It follows Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the owner of struggling New York record label American Century. Richie is a troubled genius and he’s sinking in a sea of booze and coke. His company is facing financial troubles and he’s fighting its potential sale to Polygram, as he attempts to keep it relevant in a decade that saw the music business struggle after the glowing successes of the ‘60s. Juno Temple’s Jamie Vine, a lowly assistant eager to make her way up the company food chain (think Mad Men’s Peggy). She attaches herself to the Nasty Bits, an up and coming punk band led by James Jaagger’s Kip Stevens – and they might just be the light at the end of American Century’s collapsing financial tunnel.
Intercut with flash backs to happier times which show Richie’s spiral into a creative and emotional abyss, the shadow of Mad Men looms large over this show. However, Cannavale’s Richie is no Don Draper. Jon Hamm’s Draper may have been a morally ambiguous character but you empathised and cared about him. Richie is a bully and a buffoon, a coked-up Homer Simpson who is the architect of his demise. You almost want him to fail.
Vinyl is rich on period detail and there are plenty of nods to the music world of the ‘70s, with a lot of real acts name-checked and featured in each episode – but if anyone can get away with it it’s Scorsese and Jagger. It has a good soundtrack but it’s crammed with too much music, like the producers have their eye on several soundtrack albums. The constant musical attacks are too distracting and it feels like the producers are attempting to cover cracks in character and storytelling by throwing in yet another tune.
A curiosity rather than a must, you can’t help but be disappointed by Vinyl considering the talent involved. It appears that HBO knows this (Terence Winter is no longer the showrunner) and it looks like the second season might have some course correction to help it along. It’s not bad, just disappointing – but I’d still rather watch Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
The blu-ray of Vinyl comes stacked with episode commentaries and behind the scenes detail. If you love the show – you’ll be thrilled. The best feature is Making Vinyl: Recreating the ’70s – a 20 minute look at how they gave the show its authentic period look.