By Thomas Infante
The new HBO series “Vinyl” is an entertaining character-drama set in the 1970s during the height and popularity of classic rock culture. With Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger as creators and executive producers, the show gained attention from music fans who hoped to get an insider perspective about one of the best eras in music history. While the references to popular music and musicians are plentiful, most of them don’t add much to the overall story of the show, which focuses heavily on the hectic lives of the protagonists.
Our flawed hero is Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a record executive with a weakness for cocaine and self-indulgence. At the show’s beginning, we see Richie as the fulfilled family man and proceed to watch him destroy his happy life with drugs and selfishness. When Richie and his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), married, they made a pact to quit using drugs, knowing how dangerously prevalent substances are in the record business. After Richie’s relapse, Devon begins to seek fulfillment outside of her family, turning to her old friends that are a part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, a popular hangout spot for artists and stars.
The acting is consistently passionate and believable, especially from Cannavale. Spending most his time in a drug-induced stupor, it’s an absolute joy to watch Richie scream and fight his way through any situation that faces him. Although he is intimidating to most of the other characters, there are times when Richie shows a more sensitive side as well, and the credibility of his emotional range can be attributed mainly to Cannavale’s acting prowess.
Wilde’s character is often portrayed as a free-spirited and caring individual who has a difficult time dealing with Richie’s drug binges. She is a very strong woman, especially considering the time in which the show is set.
The supporting cast spends most of the show picking up the pieces after Richie’s many questionable decisions. Richie’s business partner, Zak (Ray Romano), is usually the first to question his leadership, but rarely can influence his decisions. Kip Stevens (James Jagger) sings in a punk band called “The Nasty Bits,” which is signed to Richie’s record label. Kip’s sarcastic humor and indifferent attitude towards life clashes with Richie’s passion for the music business and Kip is forced to adapt to Richie’s orders.
Richie does have great taste in music, which is one of the show’s strong points. Classic rock music fills the majority of the show’s soundtrack and almost all of it is exceptional. Some of the featured music includes work by David Bowie, The Who, The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones and many more.
Usually about once per episode, there is a performance from a doppelganger of a famous rock star. Actors portraying The New York Dolls perform “Personality Crisis” in the first episode and the performance is more than just a cover of the song — it is explosive and we can see the audience wildly cheering and dancing at the show. “Vinyl” does an excellent job at creating these performances that make you feel as if you truly are watching a documentary about the band or artist performing.
Many classic rock icons make fictionalized appearances in the show. Robert Plant, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper all show up, portrayed by various actors. The appearances of these musicians showcase the fantastic costume design. All of these rock icons are immediately recognizable to the viewer, which makes the show a much more immersive period piece.
Although the show can seem ridiculous at times, it is fairly historically accurate in its depictions of landmark classic rock events. In the first episode, Richie goes to see The New York Dolls perform and the venue collapses on top of the audience. As unbelievable as this seems, this event actually occurred in real life at the Mercer Arts Center in 1973, although there was no performance happening during the collapse. Another example is a flashback to Richie’s past when he first meets his wife at a Velvet Underground show in New York’s East Village club, a show that occurred at the same approximate time and place in real life.
All of these details help “Vinyl” rise above the status of a typical drama series. The characters are fun and interesting and Cannavale’s acting is particularly exhilarating to watch. Although many of the rock references amount to little overall plot significance, the variety of famous characters help the show stay interesting and watchable, just in case you want to watch something other than Richie snorting as much cocaine as he can within a 60-minute time slot.