Monday, March 21, 2016
Sex, drugs and vinyl
Some friends talked me into watching the pilot for Vinyl, a new HBO series by the "Dream Team" of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen and Terrence Winter. It gives us the cocaine-fueled early 70s when Rock was in decline and record companies had to sign Abba and Donny Osmond to stay alive. You hear all the music from that era, including Led Zeppelin at the peak of its powers, but the record company is fictional as are the main cast of characters.
Richie Finestra is exactly like you would imagine a record producer from that era. He's supposed to be cleaning himself up, no longer snorting coke as he tries to spend more quality time with his young family at his Connecticut estate, but he's got a pending sale with a huge German record label and has to make it look like American Century is worth the multi-million dollar buyout. Not bad for a guy who started his label on $150,000 and apparently has Led Zeppelin as one of his clients, even if they were on Atlantic at the time.
The oddest thing are the numerous Kraut jokes as if we were still in the early 50s when Richie was trying to make his mark in the record business. Led Zeppelin's manager, Peter Grant, blows up when he hears Richie is planning on selling American Century to the nasty Krauts, telling everyone what a great bunch of British patriots he and the band are and they would never go along with any such deal. In a backstage scene, a young Robert Plant was more worried about his share of the royalties, which Richie explains to the Germans all expenses are deducted from, so even if a record is a flop they still make money. Seems Richie hasn't forgotten his mafia roots.
Scorsese, who directed the pilot, blurs the lines between fact and fiction so that we are never quite sure whether what we are seeing is live or memorex. Most of the time, his alpha males go around with cocks in hands looking for fertile ground to dive into, except Richie of course, who has a lovely wife throwing him a big birthday party and telling everyone the reason they missed Woodstock was become the sex was too good to break away from.
We get a series of flashbacks into Richie's unsavory beginnings, as he tried to break away from a mafia-controlled R&B label, hoping to take his friend "Little Jimmy" with him, but the mafia don's daughter loved the Cha Cha Twist so there's no way the mafia don is letting Little Jimmy go. Richie accepts this as the price he has to pay for his independence and takes the cash in hand. Little Jimmy gets his vocal chords crushed when he refused to sing for the mafia don anymore.
Everyone definitely looks the part, even Ray Romano as one of Richie's partners, but Ray acts no better in this series than he did in Everyone Loves Raymond, constantly looking down at the floor as if the lines have been pasted there for him to read. The casting in general is weak, as if we are seeing a slightly more grown up version of The 70s Show. However, Vinyl most resembles Mad Men, right down to a plucky young assistant, Jamie Vine, who has bent Richie's ear with a new band called Nasty Bits, with Mick's son James playing the lead singer.
There's plenty of naked bodies and sex in cocaine-fueled scenes of wild orgies,along with a radio baron who tries to put Richie in his place. Andrew Dice Clay gives an absurd over-the-top performance, mercifully not available on youtube, that is more pathetic than funny and comes to its appropriate closure. Not sure what this was all about except to tell us why Richie used the calling card of a homicide detective to cut his coke in the opening scene.
The first episode eventually loops its way back to the opening scene, with Richie trying to figure out what the youthful stampede in the alley was about, only to find the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. Here again, fact and fiction are merged into one as Richie literally watched the old building fall down around him, only to rise from the ashes like Lazarus to salvage what remains of his record company.
Apparently, HBO had the chance to pick up Mad Men all those years ago and has been regretting it ever since. They've tried hard to score another series with the punch of The Sopranos, calling in Terence Winter to give Vinyl a distinctively gangland feel. But, it doesn't work. The show jumps around like someone on too much coke, not concentrating on any one scene long enough to make any sense of it. I guess Scorsese, Winter and company felt they would throw everything out in the pilot and sort it out in later episodes. But, I didn't come away with enough empathy in anyone of the characters, except maybe Little Jimmy, to care.