on season one of hbo’s vinyl.
Vinyl, which just completed its first season on HBO, wants to catch the flavor of decadent 1970s rock music industry culture, but what it really wants to be is the sequel to Mad Men. It’s an office drama masquerading as a period piece.
It certainly has the imprimatur to be something more: co-produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, the series is beautifully shot, evoking the seedy glamour of 1970s New York City. And the costumes and sets are in the Mad Men spirit of playful, ever-so-slightly-ironic retro cool. The acting, especially by Bobby Cannavale as record executive Richie Finestra, is top notch. Cannavale does everything he can to bring depth to his rather unlikeable character.
But this is a show that ultimately doesn’t trust either its subject matter or its instincts in telling the story. You know you are in trouble when you have to introduce both a murder narrative to drive the plot forward and numerous references to pop stars, locations, and other now-iconic aspects of rock music history to signal authenticity. Cover-ups and cover versions just don’t cut it. Can we really be fascinated enough by these characters when we are too distracted comparing the too-fat David Bowie impersonator to the original, wispy, cocaine-skeletal Thin White Duke?
Still, there are thrilling moments in the series: the opening credits take you on a joyride through the microgroove of a 33 1/3 long player, with a vaguely Led Zeppelin heavy rock blues howl and pummeling drumbeat in the background. The actual segments with Vinyl‘s version of Zeppelin playing an arena show capture a bit of the energy of rock as something in between corporate big business and Dionysian ritual (they reminded me of the great backstage moments in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical Almost Famous). The secret-club feel of partiers dancing in bombed-out public-housing spaces in an emerging disco/hip hop scene uptown are wonderfully staged. And the sheer wild fun of reimagining a New York Dolls performance at the Mercer Street Arts Center as an epic collapse of New York City’s tenement infrastructure (the actual Center did collapse, but not when or because the Dolls were playing) is another of the visual and sonic treats in the series.
Overall, though, Vinyl oddly doesn’t seem to believe in the music. Partly this is because the show can’t make up its mind about its time period: were the early and mid 1970s the moment when a certain rock ‘n’ roll tradition dating back to the 1950s was tragically dying, a victim of its own commercial success, or was it busy being reborn in punk, disco, and hip hop? Or was the original rebellious spirit of 50s rock ‘n’ roll being recovered from the bloated corporate-hippie behemoth? Should we even care, anymore, about these stale Rock and Roll Hall of Fame narratives and debates?
Perhaps Vinyl resorts to superfluous murder plots and countless name checks and impersonations because it can’t imagine that the music itself could feel like a life-or-death matter. There’s a touristic quality to the glance backward, a reissue of the issues that the rock music industry raised as it spun out from the 60s as something at once under control and out of control.