Midway through the two-hour season premiere of Vinyl, the flawed but brilliant record executive Richie Finestra finds himself where the so many flawed but brilliant men at the center of TV shows and movies have found themselves before: at his own birthday party, thrown by a loved one against his wishes. During the obligatory backyard toast to a crowd of friends and business associates, his wife, Devon, announces that she has a confession to make. She and Richie did not attend Woodstock. They had tickets but were so in love that they ended up staying in bed all day.
Richie’s coworkers are shocked. What happened to his story about seeing Pete Townshend beat Abbie Hoffman with his Gibson? What about hanging backstage with Alvin Lee?
“What do you want from me, huh?” bellows Richie. “How am I gonna admit I blew off Woodstock? I would have lost all credibility, right?”
It’s a clever moment from the 1973-music-biz drama created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter. In the opening moments of the series, Richie’s voiceover cautions that this telling of his story will be “clouded by lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement and maybe a little bullshit.” Lying about attending Woodstock is precisely the kind of bullshit that powers this show and the industry it concerns. Vinyl arrives in a world where rock and roll has already become legend, legend has become commodity, and legend-making has therefore become a capitalist imperative.
Whether Vinyl wants to critique this dynamic by exposing the immense amounts of BS involved or just participate in it by reamplifying old legends isn’t ever clear, at least in the five episodes I’ve seen. Enjoying the series certainly seems to depend on your interest in being retold some of the most hoary tales in pop history; it depends on you actually being thrilled to hear from the folks who were at Woodstock, even though you’ve been hearing from them for decades.
Bobby Cannavale plays Richie, whose loutish exterior disguises an ear for talent and—I think we’re meant to genuinely believe—a special, gentle soul. In one scene, we’re told he’s the nicest guy in the record business; in another, he worries about the fate of potentially laid-off employees as his partners roll their eyes. A number of flashbacks work to demonstrate that the love between him and Devon (Olivia Wilde) is enduring and real. The rest of the time, he hoovers coke, commits shocking violence, and neglects his family. It’s HBO—he’s a complicated man, okay?
Richie’s record label, American Century, once commanded the charts but, after 20 years in an ever-more-saturated market, has hit upon hard times, to the point where rivals call it “American Cemetery.” A German conglomerate wants to buy it, to the initial delight of him and his partners, including Ray Romano’s wiseguy head of promotions Zak Yankovich. The plot really begins to move, though, once Richie reignites his passion for rock after stumbling into a New York Dolls concert so loud it causes the venue to collapse.
That collapse actually did happen in real life, and Richie’s coincidental attendance of it is one of many things that makes him feel like a classic-rock Forrest Gump, casually crossing paths with the most pivotal figures and events of the era. Mad Men was sometimes criticized for its exaggerated winks at real history, but that show’s engagement with its era was a masterwork of subtlety compared to Vinyl, which features scenes that literally consist of people reading from lists of famous names. To be fair, a hip record exec in 1973 New York City would have had lots of celebrity encounters, and the screenplay inoculates itself a bit with the acknowledgement that Richie’s making much of this stuff up.
The period specifics might even be the best reason to watch the show. If you get a kick out of seeing actors interpret Robert Plant, or Howlin’ Wolf, or Robert Goulet, or Kool Herc, then many kicks you shall have. Mick Jagger’s son James plays a proto-punk frontman whose band is, of course, told to get music lessons by an A&R square who just doesn’t get it. Scorsese is as stylish a documenter of rock as he’s ever been, though by now his techniques, like everything else in this show, won’t strike any viewer as novel. Perhaps the best thing about the cosplaying aspect of Vinyl is the reminder that the diverse proper nouns people think of as “the ’70s” really did exist at the same time, often in dialogue with each other. Bruce Lee, Andy Warhol, and Richard Nixon all made an impression on a nation listening to ABBA, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk Railroad.
Anyone who sees the current pop landscape as especially debased will receive a dose of perspective from Vinyl, which at times plays like a how-to in the payola, sales falsification, rip-off contracting, and intimidation that powered the ’70s record-label system. The show, to its credit, doesn’t glorify white guitar gods at the expense of the black pioneers who inspired them; racial exploitation is a major theme here, shown in a plotline involving Ato Essandoh as a disillusioned blues player. Racism, as well as sexism, also rules American Century’s office culture, a fact that again might draw comparisons to Mad Men. But because Vinyl takes place after the sexual revolution and civil-rights movement, there’s a false pretense of openness and equality in the workplace that, say, allows men to maybe-jokingly-maybe-not request a blowjob from women who are expected to playfully banter back. Yet while Mad Men took seriously the emotional and material toll on women and minorities from demeaning behavior, so far in Vinyl, piggishness is mostly just a punch line.
Perhaps that’s because the central concern of Vinyl isn’t social change but rather the eternal tension between art and commerce. On one side of Vinyl’s cast are unambiguously disgusting industry men breaking kneecaps and accepting bribes and swindling musicians. On the other are the artists, uniformly uncompromising and humane, willing to literally torch their work rather than sacrifice its integrity. Richie seems to believe he can bridge these extremes. Do you care if he’s right? The show is as expertly shot and acted as its pedigree would suggest, with each episode serving up a few scenes of frightening tension. But the overarching plot of a man trying to rediscover purity in a corrupt world is not a complication of the already over-documented milieu Vinyl exists in. It is exactly the story rock has told about itself time and again, and not a ton is gained in the retelling here.