Midseason review: “Vinyl” breaks the mold

HBO’s new series joins its stable of critically acclaimed premium cable shows.


Courtesy of HBO

Actors Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde play Mr. and Mrs. Finestra in HBO’s new series, “Vinyl.”

Paul Patane, A&E Editor

What happens when a highly reputable cable network puts filmmakers and artists Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter together to create a new TV series? Rock ‘n’ roll magic, courtesy of innovative and stylized filming techniques, highlighting mixed media, a talented cast and stellar music compositions.

HBO’s new TV drama “Vinyl” showcases the music industry in 1970s New York City through the lens of Richie Finestra, a record executive for American Century played by “Boardwalk Empire” alum Bobby Cannavale.

Finestra is a complex anti-hero. He’s relatable, even likeable; but his decision-making and substance abuse problems complicate everything and everyone in his sphere of influence, including record label staffers Julie Silver, Zak Yankovich and Jamie Vine, played by Max Casella, Ray Romano and Juno Temple, respectively. When Finestra isn’t dealing with office politics and a record industry in flux, he tries to keep his substance abuse problems away from his wife, Devon, played by Olivia Wilde.

In addition to established cast members, there are new faces that help legitimize the musical components of the show. One of those new faces is British punk rocker Kip Stevens, played by James Jagger, son of Mick Jagger. Not only does the younger Jagger look like a clone of his father, he adds depth and authenticity to his character and how significant his band is to the future of Finestra’s American Century.

The two hour premiere focuses on Finestra and whether or not he will sell his sinking company or tighten up and completely overhaul the label. In addition to its solid premise, the pilot was smartly directed by Scorsese, who is known as an elite filmmaker having directed many critically successful films including “Casino,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed.”

The overall direction of “Vinyl” has been handled by showrunner Winter, who is primarily known for helming previous HBO period drama “Boardwalk Empire,” and for being a frequent Scorsese collaborator. Scorsese’s highly stylized pilot quickly establishes the characters, world, mood and structure behind the show while creating tension—all while profiling amazing music in palatable doses that instantly leaves you wanting more.

While “Vinyl” is innovative, collaborative and takes full advantage of its premium cable capabilities, its audience appeal isn’t universal. Like any period drama, it’s limited to the confines of its time and genre, potentially alienating certain segments of society. In this instance, 1970s New York City is as gritty as it is glamourous—featuring substance abuse, racism and no-fear-of-consequences sex before HIV is a concern. On the flip side, “Vinyl” celebrates rock ‘n’ roll, and in many instances works against the grain of societal norms of the time, tackling difficult issues while not sugarcoating the show’s characters or subject matter. Put it all together and you have a 1970s “Mad Men”—featuring rock ‘n’ roll on a coke high.

Even though the show’s scripts are tight, at times, pacing feels a little slow and wonky. However, Cannavale’s performance is so strong he helps carry any deficiencies from scene to scene, bringing passion, humor and love to all he does—even cocaine and alcohol consumption. Ultimately, the ambition and scope of the show outweighs any minor missteps that are made and then some.

Equally as important as the writing, filming and acting in this show is the music. “Vinyl” has a diverse soundtrack that really enhances the show, its genre and how we can look back at the 1970s while investing in a contemporary narrative.

To add to its overall experience, the production team smartly makes all of the “Vinyl” music available on Spotify for free, strengthening its mixed media potential for tech-savvy viewers. Also, if you’re into the music and watch the show as it airs, it’s worth following its Twitter account (@vinylHBO) as songs that premiere each episode are featured online.

“Vinyl” airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on HBO. If you missed the pilot, HBO has it available online for free. The 10-episode first season’s finale will air on Apr. 17 and a second season has already been ordered for next year. For more information about the show, visit its website at: http://www.hbo.com/vinyl/index.html.