Earlier this week came the sad (albeit predictable) news HBO changed it’s mind on renewing it’s high profile Martin Scorsese-Mick Jagger produced series Vinyl. Despite being developed for over a decade and given an outrageous budget for a ten episode season, the show just wasn’t pulling in the numbers the network had hoped for. There was the behind the scenes shake-up of firing the showrunner and the network itself changing hands, that probably played into the decision to cancelling but still HBO went the easy way out and cut losses instead of weathering the storm. I for one watched the show from it’s premier and while I felt the show had plenty of issues, I still think it had the potential to be one of the most important music-based shows in television history. It had a check list of what millions love about Scorsese directed films along with the rich love of culture and music history for casual fans and die-hard alike. Even the name of the show catered to the recent boom in musical formats. In the 1970s records were just records. No one was walking around saying “Oh I prefer the sound of vinyl.” it was just an audio format, no different how people see mp3s these day. The pandering to a modern audience may have been one of the attributes that lead to it’s cancellation, but more on that later.
Clearly 50thirdand3rd isn’t a site that reviews television shows, but upon digging deeper into answering that question, I found the answer ties directly into what is killing the mainstream music in real life. Let’s take a look at what this series did right and wrong in it’s short run and see what it says about today’s music industry.
Vinyl tells the story of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a record executive trying to resurrect his dying record label in the early 1970s. American Century Records one time housed some of the scene’s greatest pop stars but due to the culture shift of the music scene and bad financial decisions, Finestra finds himself on the edge of bankruptcy which leads him to consider selling the label to German investors. Throughout the series we’re introduced to Finestra’s ‘business family’ that includes his three partners (played by Ray Romano, PJ Byme, and JC MacKenzie), as well as a ragtag team of young interns (including Juno Temple and Jack Quaid) and a hilarious various talent scout (Max Casella), each having their own doses of daily drama, as well as his ‘personal family’ including his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde), a former Warhol Factory Girl. An ex-colleague blues musician Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), as well as his some-what secret ties to the New York mafia.
Aside from the standard cable television tropes of a failing marriage, and mafia drama, Vinyl was about the music. Each episode progressed the story by utilizing it’s soundtrack. Almost as if the classic songs of the era were characters themselves. There’s plenty of name dropping and brief encounters of real artists such as Lou Reed, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and even Elvis Presley to name a few (all played masterfully by look-a-likes well enough to keep the viewers from being taken out of the world the show creates) but also how important people were to movements that shaped the way we listen to secular music even to this day.
There’s some amazing performances by each of the actors, main stars and supporting as well as heart wrenching respect for New York’s music scene. The early 1970s was a strange time for music. The turbulence of culture shock as well as political uncertainty in America, saw the creation of important music genres such as Hard Rock, Funk, Punk, and Hip-Hop, while the major labels were bleeding the artists’ integrity in the pop scene. All of this history is captured within ten episodes. Sure there’s plenty of liberties taken but the gist of it is here in a condensed form and could act as a solid jumping board if you want to go back and study up.
Along with an amazing soundtrack of classic source music, we’re also presented with a modern soundtrack of original songs for the show’s mock-up groups like the Sly Stone inspired Hannibal, this universe’s creators of Disco, Indigo, and of course the show’s very own darling The Nasty Bits (who’s lead singer is played by Mick Jagger’s son). To sweeten the deal, there’s quite a few classic songs being performed by some of today’s brightest stars such as Julian Cassablanca, Andrew WK, and Aimee Man performing as Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and Karen Carpenter respectively. The music in this show is a delight in itself as both entertaining and a make-shift history lesson.
Being the show is a work of fiction, I feel kind of shallow complaining about the historical inaccuracies but for the most part they’re forgivable. The main historical issues I had throughout the series are the coincidences. Again it’s a fictional TV show but it insists this tiny group of people are tied to the creation of Hip-Hop, the success of Disco, the discovery of Punk, all in the matter of days (mostly in the pilot episode mind you) It’s a bit much to swallow and makes the vast music world of the 1970s seem tiny and inconsistent.
Nitpicking aside, the show’s biggest issue was the lack of guts. It introduces important issues such the death of artistic music in the mainstream as well as serious strongholds such as feminism and racism only to be mishandled or pretending to be completely cliche plot devices to pander to the casual audience. We don’t need the mafia subplot to tell this story. We don’t need to see every cultural event of historical significance shoehorned into an episode to show its 1973. It wastes so much time and resources trying to convince the audience it’s a period piece when it could be tackling these serious issues they introduced, in a way that no other show has ever done.
I also want to point out how much I dislike the Nasty Bits subplot. It’s an obvious eye-roller that Mick Jagger pushed his celebrity clout (and wallet) to get his son in a staring role, but the subplot is boring and sometimes painful to watch. No offense to James Jagger, but he isn’t much of an actor and the character he’s playing was clearly intended to be less important in the grand scheme of things.
One of the most striking things about Vinyl is the commentary on some of darker elements of secular music. Without getting into a history lesson here, most will agree that rock music was pretty much stolen from black artists, repackaged and sold to white audiences, with little credit and zero compensation. The character of Lester Grimes acts as the the embodiment of this development. Over the course of ten episodes he’s manipulated, used, and forced to do things he doesn’t want to do all at the will of Finestra. It’s something that’s never really been discussed on a television show and with the proper time to expand, it could’ve been the defining moment of the entire project.
This show also says a lot about how women were (and arguably still) treated in and out of the work place. Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) at first seems like an opportunistic hustler trying to climb the ladder of American Century by any means necessary, but the cold hard reality is there’s no other way for a woman to better herself in the business world. She lies, steals, cheats and exaggerates to get what she wants because she has to. It’s a shame her sublot is wasted being tied to that of the Nasty Bits, because this commentary on women in the workplace is fresh and relevant in 2016 as it was in 1973.
There’s also an underlying theme of addiction within the character of Richie Finestra. It’s interesting and sometimes far more subtle than most viewers give it credit for. He goes through of the episodes under the influence of cocaine but his addiction is far more deeper than that. Without giving too much away, Finestra is addicted to himself. Here’s a character that wants his way so badly that he isn’t above ruining his marriage, mentally manipulating his best friend, and even weaseling his way out of murder with taking zero responsibility. It’s the kind of addiction that’s rarely seen on television without coming off as pandering or justifying bad behavior.
This was a show not without it’s problems but at it’s core it tells an interesting story speaking volumes about some of the many things wrong today’s secular music world. Corporate business has stolen the heart and integrity from the poets and sold it to a manipulated audience by the pound. Agents and labels are more interested in turning a profit than distributing a product the listener can identify with. Of course business over art has been the name of the game since day one but 2016 is a troubling time in the world on the cusp of cultural change, even more than 1973. At least back then we had the anti-oppression of Hip-Hop around the corner, or the youth liberation the Punk movement in it’s infancy. 2016 has none of that. Rock music is for selling cars, Hip-Hop a vehicle of self-righteousness, and Punk might as well be trademarked by Walt Disney.
Vinyl might have succeeded had it focused less on reaching a broader audience. If it introduced and tackled such serious things as feminism and racism, as it did with it’s pre-release marketing, the viewers would have caught on anyway regardless of knowledge of music. The pandering and Scorsese-isms caused the show to collapse under itself. Underneath the hype, glitz and glam, there was a deep theoretical tale that could be applied to mainstream music and maybe even ourselves as people. As a stand alone story, it wraps up on a positive note tying up up most of it’s lose ends and thankfully doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, but there was so much potential to grow into something more. The foundation was set for a show that could’ve easily went for many seasons without getting stale. The characters were there, the plot lines set up, and most importantly, a soundtrack with limitless possibilities.
It was a solid run Vinyl, but sadly, there’s no Side B.
For more information on HBO’s Vinyl, including the signifigance of music used in the series as well as an episode-by-episode analysis, download Joshua B. Hoe’s ebook “A Music Lover’s Guide To HBO’s Vinyl” by going HERE
To purchase Vinyl on DVD/BluRay as well as the soundtrack album on various formats, please visit hbo.com