Review: HBO’s ‘Vinyl’ a classic rock drama that wishes it was punk

HBO’s new drama Vinyl is set at a crossroads for the music industry in which its hero, drug-addicted record label president Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), works. It’s 1973, when some of the iconic rock acts of the ’60s were still vital – including The Rolling Stones, whose Mick Jagger co-created Vinyl alongside Boardwalk Empire‘s Terence Winter, director Martin Scorsese, and author Rich Cohen – but were having to make room for new artists and new styles of music. In Sunday’s pilot episode, Richie tries to cut a deal with Led Zeppelin, but is also entranced by a live performance of The New York Dolls’ punk anthem “Personality Crisis,” and intrigued when he drives through the Bronx and overhears hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc spinning two records at once.

But for all that Richie is obsessed with finding something new and exciting – “I WANT WHAT’S NEXT!” he screams to his terrified A&R reps – Vinyl feels less like the next step in TV drama’s evolution than a greatest hits collection. Richie Finestra wants to expose something new to the world when the show he’s at the center of – particularly in its nearly two-hour pilot episode(*) – is more of a dinosaur rock album. It’s capable of great moments – even on 1973’s middling Stones release Goats Head Soup, Jagger and his mates were able to lay down a track like “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” – but through its first five episodes, it’s playing variations on tunes you already know by heart. Occasionally, like Herc, it’ll try switching back and forth between its influences – here’s a burst of Sopranos, then a shot of Mad Men, followed by a gorgeous Scorsese camera move – but where Herc turned those overlapping tracks into something new, the transitions here only call attention to how frequently they’ve been played before.

(*) The two-hour drama pilot was never an industry standard, but it would be used for shows that were considered special, like ER or Lost (whose pilot was ultimately split in half and aired over two weeks). Now, the practice is nearly unheard of. Occasionally, you’ll see a show’s first two episodes aired on the same night (FX did this back in the fall with The Bastard Executioner), but the last genuine two-hour pilot I recall airing intact was for FOX’s Terra Nova back in 2011.

So Richie is a self-destructive enigma whose behavior frequently baffles his colleagues (particularly Ray Romano as promo guru Zak) even as they admire his charisma and talent, and he even has a wife (Olivia Wilde’s Devon) feeling suffocated by playing mom in the suburbs when she was a glamorous fixture at Andy Warhol’s Factory when they met. There’s a young woman (Juno Temple’s Jamie) desperate to escape the secretarial pool and do something more creative, if only anyone’s willing to acknowledge her talent. There’s a murder and a half-baked attempt to dispose of the body, because there’s always a murder and a poorly-hidden corpse on these shows.

Even Scorsese’s direction of the pilot – followed in later episodes by the likes of Allen Coulter and Mark Romanek, who, much as Tim Van Patten and company did on Boardwalk Empire, ably recreate the Scorsese style after he’s gone – is a double-edged sword. Scorsese has done more than any American director to fuse cinema and rock music, and Vinyl pulses with so much energy that it threatens to burst out of the TV screen whenever there’s an extended performance scene, like the Dolls show Richie attends in the pilot, or a showcase in a later episode featuring the Nasty Bits, a fictional punk band whose sneering frontman is played by Mick Jagger’s son James. (The soundtrack is a mix of period songs, modern covers of them – occasionally by the original artist, like David Johansen recording a new version of “Personality Crisis” for the Dolls scene – and the odd original song for the fictional bands, some of them written by the two Jaggers.)

But even more than Boardwalk, this plays at times like Scorsese doing a cover band performance of himself. It’s great to have Scorsese himself filming Cannavale doing a line of coke off a car’s rearview mirror, but hasn’t he gone down this particular seedy alley a time or twelve already?

Where Boardwalk was able to transcend its Godfather/Untouchables cosplay qualities was in the performances and the tight storytelling by Winter and company. That was a series that understood the strength of longform TV narrative and how to lay out different storylines over the course of a season so they would collide in devastating fashion at year’s end. That design also meant that Boardwalk seasons periodically dragged in the early and middle portions, and since HBO only made the first five Vinyls available to critics, I don’t know if Winter’s gifts at landing a season have carried through to the new series. So we’ll have to see.

As for the acting, Cannavale is giving a spectacular, full-throated performance as a character who’s annoying more often than not. Richie’s aware on some level that he’s a caricature – he narrates parts of the premiere, and confesses, “This is my story, clouded by lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement, and maybe a little bullshit” – and Cannavale fully commits to all the sweaty mania that’s the flavor of Richie’s particular mid-life crisis. But as impressive as the spectacle may be of a coke-addled Richie trying to turn a screening of Enter the Dragon into an interactive experience, a little of that goes a very long way, even as the character becomes defined almost entirely by his overindulgence. Cannavale is charismatic enough to hold the screen for long stretches where his face is the only thing in the frame, but even when Richie is having a quieter moment – say, reaching out to Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a former blues musician fallen on hard times after they worked together years earlier – he seems perpetually on the verge of an explosion.

Wilde and Romano (who more than proved his dramatic acting chops on Men of a Certain Age and Parenthood) spend a lot of time reacting incredulously to Richie’s latest stunt, though both have scenes suggesting how much they can bring to the show if their characters ever start being defined by more than just their relationship to the lead. Playing someone relatively unconnected to Richie at the start of the series, Juno Temple has a little more room to maneuver (and plays well off of both James Jagger and Max Casella, as the label’s smug head of A&R), and there’s a livelier quality to her scenes.

Through five episodes, there’s an awful lot of excess in Vinyl, which perhaps makes sense for a show involving two icons of ’70s rock in Jagger and Scorsese. But all of Richie’s searching for the next idea, and all of the scenes involving the Nasty Bits or other rising forms of music, suggest a show that really wishes it could strip away all the glam and all the tropes and just do something simple and raw and powerful. With the talent involved, I’d love to see the punk rock version of Vinyl. As it is, this classic rock double album approach roars to life just often enough to work despite itself.

At one point, Richie decides to set up a sub-label, and explains, “The idea is new, and not fed through a machine so hard that you can’t feel the intestines of the artists and the music.” That spin on Vinyl could be incredible. This one still has to figure itself out.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at