Tonight, HBO premiered its new prestige drama, Vinyl, a show that's so pedigreed it could compete at Westminster. The series comes to us from executive producers — and longtime artistic soul mates — Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger (among other E.P.s), although I have a sneaking suspicion the latter was only brought on so Vinyl could use thinly veiled lore about the Rolling Stones in plot lines without getting sued for intellectual property theft. I'm just kidding, Mick, I know you were involved with the show from the very beginning. (I'm sure Mick Jagger is totally reading this recap while swiveling his hips to and fro, as I like to imagine he's always doing in-between melodically asking people to get off of his cloud. It's just the vision I have.)
Still, Jagger's involvement must be instrumental in keeping the show's music budget down, especially since this is a series where no expense seems to be spared — like, absolutely none at all. The show's massive production budget simply oozes off the screen. Still, I assume Mick Jagger procures at least one thing at a discount when he reaches out to his industry friends asking to use their songs in his new HBO show that he's doing with his buddy Marty Scorsese. I can also picture music supervisors from other productions weeping at the way Vinyl flaunts these industry connections. The show plays maybe 10 seconds of what you just know is an extremely expensive song to license so a character can simply enter a room. On any other show, it would blow the music budget for the entire season. On Vinyl, it's someone who owed Jagger a favor getting him back.
In a way, that's what Vinyl is about: the quid pro quo that drives the recording industry in the 1970s. The show is centered around and narrated by Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a record company executive who both loves and hates the industry that's given him a gorgeous mansion in Greenwich, rock gods as friends, and what we're meant to infer is an epic roster of tales from drug-fueled orgies (the premiere has him going to one to conduct a business deal amidst the fucking, just like Game of Thones' now-famous sexposition), historically important concerts, and more of the kind of living most men only dream of doing.
I say "men" as opposed to "people," because this show feels very much like it's made for men like Jason Bateman's character in Juno. You know, that very specific suburban white male who idolizes the golden age of rock 'n' roll and would give anything to have been at Woodstock, CBGB, and other iconic venues and performances that have become the stuff of music legend. Does this obsessive fondness for a past era they didn't even live through suggest a psychological aversion to dealing with what's happening in the present? That's something for their therapists to sort out. I'm here to talk about Vinyl.
Vinyl very much wants to be the Mad Men of this era. Much like Mad Men, Vinyl is centered on an antihero (Finestra) who's become jaded with his success in an industry that's at its peak during the moment the show is set — New York City, 1973. It depicts and mentions real historical events and people. For example, Richie's beleaguered wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), is supposed to have been one of Andy Warhol's muses before she left the scene to become a wife and mother in Greenwich. Both Richie and Devon are struggling with sobriety, although Devon seems to be doing much better with it, seeing as the series starts with Richie snorting some massive lines of cocaine.
Finestra has returned to drugs because he's just been involved in his first violent homicide and his record company, American Century, is being sold to a German conglomerate. Richie's love of music was once pure. He appreciates all genres — glam rock (the New York Dolls play a prominent role in the series premiere), blues, jazz, punk — but now, he's seen the ugly side of the recording industry. He knows about the payola, the sales inflation, the payoffs, and more. Finestra's struggling, though, because all of this corruption has given him and his family (he and Devon have two children) a nice life in Greenwich. I believe that someone who's in charge of Vinyl often sings, "You can't always get what you want."
This can't just be a show about one person, of course. We meet the rest of the cast of characters during the two-hour pilot, but the main thrust of the first episode is Finestra's big decision about whether or not to sell his baby, American Century, to the Germans. We're supposed to realize that he is someone who's risen to the top on the business side, but he wants to be like the musicians, who in the world of Vinyl, are still fighting for artistic integrity and creative license.
There's no social media marketing, music videos, YouTube confessionals, or any of the things we see on Empire, which provides a stark contrast to Vinyl. It's shocking what a different beast the music industry has become now that we have two series that take us behind the curtain before and after the rise of digital distribution and the internet. On Vinyl, the artists are still fighting to simply make their art and play it. It's Richie's job to turn that into profit, hence the inner turmoil. On Empire, artists seem more inured to being complicit in the machine.
Along with Olivia Wilde, the other female character of note appears to be Jamie Vine (Juno Temple). For now, she's an assistant at American Century — and the office's steady supplier of every drug imaginable — but she dreams of becoming an A&R rep. Considering the current team in charge of talent scouting at the company appears to be absolutely useless, she may get her wish in record time.
During the pilot, she meets Kip Stevens (James Jagger; yes, Mick's son), the lead singer of a British punk band called The Nasty Bitz. She wants to sign him — and she also sleeps with him. I mention this because it's how we learn that while Stevens seems to have the It factor that punk rockers of the time had, he also has a habit of shooting heroin in the nude after sex. He doesn't heed Vine's warning to "be careful with that stuff."
Is the two-hour Vinyl pilot solid? Sure; it was directed by Martin Scorsese and looks so expensive (I guarantee a million reviews will use the word "cinematic," which, sure). In fact, it's a little too opulent for my tastes. I like classic rock, but it just doesn't feel like the right time for a series with this much over-the-top aggrandizement of an era that already seems to be remembered with glasses that are way more rose-colored than they should be. We don't need another tale of a white male antihero (who we quickly learn screwed over a Black blues singer to whom he promised a recording contract) struggling to fight the good fight between artistic integrity and selling out to The Man. News flash, Richie, you are The Man.
I wonder if the series will note the numerous drug-related deaths during the time period, or the omnipresent and implicitly condoned statutory rape of young groupies. I know; I'm getting dark in what's supposed to be a recap. But since it's a new show, I'll remain hopeful that there will be more growth in the female characters' stories and that more attention will be paid to how artists of color were treated during this time period after the civil rights movement. If Vinyl is going to try to be the Mad Men of rock's glory days, it should be ready to tell the whole story.