Fan service is conventionally understood the following way: niche enthusiast watches show or film, then excitedly notices references that only he or she and their fellow nerds will recognize. HBO‘s "Vinyl" demonstrates that fan service is no longer only the coin of the realm for the superhero/sci-fi/fantasy crowd —it’s also for people with enormous record collections. Never before has a TV show specifically appealed to people with perfect recall regarding who the engineer for Big Star‘s #1 Record might have been.
HBO’s previous prestige program revolving around music culture was “Sonic Highways,” a travelogue in which Dave Grohl visited a number of cities with strong “rock” heritage, and in essence browbeat viewers with insufficient respect for the way Grohl thinks music should be made and appreciated. “Vinyl” is set in a milieu which would earn Grohl’s approval: which is to say, one in which giants walked the earth with guitars. The show’s first episode is directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the show’s producers, alongside frequent co-conspirator Terence Winter (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Sopranos” “The Wolf Of Wall Street”), journalist Rich Cohen and Mick Jagger.
Jagger and Scorsese have been kicking this project around for decades, and like “Boardwalk Empire,” which he executive-produced and helmed pilot episodes of, the director has unleashed his full abilities as a storyteller in a prestige television show. It’s a bravura effort from a technical standpoint, is brimming with ’70s mustaches, hairstyles and fashions, and is kinetic in the manner one associates with Scorsese. Yet “Vinyl” is often over-the-top, heavy-handed and less impressive thematically.
New Yorker Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) has seen it all in the music business: he’s managed blues and soul artist Lester Grimes (Ato Essandeh), he can handle wiseguys buzzarding around the biz’s fringes, and by 1972, he owns and operates American Century Records, an also ran label he is seeking to sell to German consortium PolyGram. He’s got “great ears,” and it bears repeating that he’s really, truly seen it all— he’s enviably in the right place and at the right time for a number of epochal mid 20th century cultural events.
Richie is bored by sobriety and affluence, and while falling off the wagon he’s radicalized when he ends up at the crumbling Mercer Arts Center for a show by the New York Dolls. He meets his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) at one of the Velvet Underground’s performances as part of Andy Warhol’s multimedia extravaganzas at the Dom. On the way home from Madison Square Garden, where he has failed to convince Led Zeppelin to defect to American Century—the Zeppelin MSG show depicted is clearly supposed be one filmed for the band’s 1977 concert movie “The Song Remains the Same”; Robert Plant (Zebedee Row) is wearing the same ill advised blouse seen in that film— his limo detours into the South Bronx, where a block party is presided over by a deejay on the ones and twos transitioning from Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate” to a James Brown break. What comes out of the sound system inspires Richie to pull the car over, exclaiming “WHAT IS THAT?” It’s implied that he is the first white person to have seen DJ Kool Herc spin.
There’s a palpable, feverish air of boxes being checked in “Vinyl.” Richie is witness to the birth of hip-hop, glam rock and avant-rock in the “you can get stabbed at any moment, but the drugs, sex and rent are cheap” New York City of Abe Beame‘s mayoralty—one wonders if he’ll see salsa superstar Hector LaVoe at the laundromat in subsequent episodes (viewers interested in the fecund musical environment depicted on the show are directed to Will Hermes’ terrific book “Love Goes to a Building on Fire”). Such pandering to crate digging music fans, as well as the often purple prose of the script (Richie is forever exclaiming that he wants music to be "REAL, RAW, LIKE IT WAS WHEN YOU WERE A TEENAGER!!!") keeps this marquee HBO show from achieving PeakTV liftoff.
Scorsese and writer Winter, riffing through Scorsese’s greatest hits —the opening “Goodfellas”-like voiceover transported over to rock n’ roll and drugs, are painfully cliche, for example— doesn’t help either. And while the show can be visually kinetic, it’s also often extremely stylistically overwrought.
It’s often said that the 1970s saw the charged socio-political climate of the late 1960s curdling into disillusionment. But the early ‘70s has since been reevaluated on its own merits, which in terms of music spiralled out multifariously and multiculturally. “Vinyl” presents this era with diligent nostalgia: record executives had been roundly despised in the popular imagination for 60 years, but now that big record labels have been hobbled since the mid 2000s and recorded music is worthless as a commodity, wide-lapeled, coke hoovering jackasses are viewed with fondness (Ray Romano plays Richie’s delightfully sleazy second in command/promotion head Zak Yankovich, and should include his agent in his will for this opportunity to transcend his reputation for ‘90s sitcom banality). Allegedly, this was when “music mattered.”
In one sense, it seems dissonant to present New York as the center of the music business of the time, insofar as Los Angeles had all the cultural capital in 1972: it was the seat of the singer-songwriter/Eagles movement that dominated the post-hippie music business and was where the livin’ was easy and the cocaine was plentiful. But this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about— this is the time and place that he experienced during his first creative flush in his ‘30s. His New York fetish is represented by shots of a Times Square theater showing a double feature of “Deep Throat” and “The Devil In Miss Jones,” and the persistent presence of the organized crime milieu which he more or less owns cinematically and which had a firm, exploitative foothold in the music business in the 1960s and 1970s. It must be said that that there are several interstitial sequences involving another Scorsese fetish —mid-century R&B music that seems indulgently out of place for the time but were appropriate for “Goodfellas.” But who’s going to tell him he can’t show Ruth Brown or Bo Diddley in dreamlike vignettes? You?
The show’s verisimilitude certainly beats Spike Lee’s 1999 “Summer of Sam,” in which Lee appeared to only understand certain aspects of mid ‘70s New York City better than others. Where Lee clearly failed to comprehend nearly anything surrounding CBGB’s circa 1977 in that film, “Vinyl” makes conspicuous reference to arcana like the huge-in-Long-Island-but-nowhere-else Good Rats and the Neon Boys, the nascent version of virtuosic CBGB’s band Television. Yet it is very unlikely that any record company functionary of the time would know who early power-electronics duo Suicide was nor would anyone in 1972 say that a band “killed it” or shudder “too soon” after a stinging joke, as characters do here.
The most curious example of the show’s attempt to present an authentic musical occurrence involves the nepotastic presence of Jagger’s son James. He plays Kip Stevens, the frontman of proto-punk band the Nasty Bits, who are discovered by A&R novice Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) and who are set up to embody Richie’s desire for a cataclysmically exciting rock band to shake up his label and the rock and roll world. As of the first episode, we do not know why English boy Kip is in a band with four Americans or how the band’s Sex Pistols-ish conventionally incompetent musicianship exists five years before the British punk rock summer of 1977. Unlike the New York Dolls concert scene mentioned above, wherein the audience is styled precisely as a Dolls crowd would have been in 1972, the Nasty Bits themselves and the crowd at their show that Jamie attends is dressed exactly like some band and the audience at a show you might have gone to last week. The “Vinyl" budget must be off the charts (a enormous percentage surely must be apportioned for licensing so many expensive recordings for the soundtrack) so maybe the wardrobe department took a hit for the team in this scene.
There is one performance on the show that supersedes any attempt at ‘70s music fetishism and perhaps this is why it sticks out as one of its best. You could say Andrew "Dice" Clay’s turn as Frank “Buck” Rogers, an owner of chain of radio stations, is redolent of Al Goldstein, the notorious New York pornographer. But as the erstwhile Diceman holds court at the Oasis, a stand-in for the New York swinger’s club Plato’s Retreat, and curses a blue streak while Richie tries to settle a dispute with him, it’s clear he was hired to play himself. He shines in a scene at his character’s home, in which he consumes mountains of cocaine for several days and fires a big ass gun indiscriminately. The scene is great, but it so resembles the drug den disaster at Rahad Jackson’s home in “Boogie Nights” that it seems that Scorsese is tipping his hat to Paul Thomas Anderson (who was of course nodding to Scorsese in that scene; thus the circle is complete). Scorsese favorite Bo Dietl appears as Joe Corso, clearly based on Joe Isgro, a legendarily crooked independent radio promotions man whose misdeeds were chronicled in Frederick Dannen’s 1990 book “Hit Men,” with which the “Vinyl” creators must be intimately familiar.
So Richie, Jamie, Zak, and Devon must wrestle with personal, professional and cultural shifts going forward. It should be interesting to see which boxes are checked next (will Richie go to David Mancuso’s early disco mecca The Loft?) and how styles of directors other than Scorsese (the likes of Allen Coulter and Mark Romanek will direct episodes further into the season) will affect the remainder of the first season of “Vinyl.” Presumably they’ll be on a smaller budget than the one allowed for its overlong two-hour premiere and the show will settle down and focus on its characters.
However, another prominent TV show of the moment concerned with how a troubled record label owner must contend with changing economic and entertainment trends, temperamental artists, drugs and a troubled family —as well as tough customers who want to kick his ass — is not dependent on the warm and fuzzy feelings 40-50somethings may have for ‘70s music culture and a bygone New York City. “Empire” wrestles with popular music and an NYC of the present, and while that show is far soapier and its creators are of a slightly less rarified pedigree, you have to credit that show for addressing the present. As it is, one hopes that "Vinyl" finds a footing beyond the peculiar conjoining of "hey record collectors, spot the reference!" and overheated Scorsese Mad Libs that seems particularly off-key.