May 21, 2024

Life’s a Circus in HBO’s “Vinyl”

HBO Vinyl

Vinyl” isn’t boring. It is also far from provocative. The HBO drama aims to highlight the revelry, drug abuse, and avant garde of New York’s 70s era music scene. And the show is succeeding for the most part. We get glimpses of European artists preening away and proto-punks moshing. In-between the music, however, this Scorsese production is generic as a big slice of DiGiorno supreme.

Not that “Vinyl” cheapens itself with the sex, drugs, and spectacle. The subject matter offers a mean glimpse into the characters’ motivations and relationships. This is a smart show. Only problem? The setting is devoid of politics.

Vietnam, social movements, Watergate, and plenty of other events are absent. Pretty weird, as those factors inspired so much 70s music and aesthetics. Hannibal shows up but his viewpoints are never mentioned. No crazed Vietnam War vets start bar fights. No minorities deal with persecution. The one closeted record exec gets minimal screen time. “Vinyl” feels as oblivious as its bourgeois leads.

The carousel of musicians is what makes the show fun. It’s pointless to list everyone, but appearances include Alice Cooper, Elvis, John Lennon, etc. Most fit the stereotype of artists whose compassion influence their music and who either overlook or struggle with its monetization.

Business is actually one of the more interesting elements of “Vinyl.” One worthwhile sidestory features a bootleg record scheme and a soulless accountant. Outlandish exec meetings, meanwhile, feature into almost every episode. Of primary focus is the strife between artistry and popular appeal. Fictional punk band The Dirty Bits make the case and point. With them, we see how studios mercilessly package, and exploit, their artists.

Production is top notch. The show’s cast is excellent and their portrayals are convincing. Similarly, the wardrobe and set is authentic. Direction of each episode is solid. Perhaps most important, the script balances spectacle with drama. The only obnoxious bit is all the clever shots of Bobby Cannavale’s character, the main protagonist, snorting coke. There are a lot of those.

This is Scorsese’s sendoff to the culture of his youth…which probably scared the alter boy shitless. His fascination is excess and “Vinyl” investigates that to a tee. Carnality and narcissism, of course, are major themes. So is patriarchal hierarchies and change. Too bad it has such a small scope.

“Vinyl” unquestionably has a stupendous budget. It could have been many things. The problem starts with the setting’s location. New York is an epicenter, sure, but the city is overdone. Lots of stuff happened in 1973, the year “Vinyl” takes place. The Paris Peace Accords, for instance. Did I mention the war in Vietnam led to some deliriously tragic rock and soul? “Vinyl” isn’t examining the era’s realities as it could. We instead have a kitsch escape salivating at the “good life.” A shame, as poignancy is music’s greatest strength.

Eric Anderson

Writer and owner of Eric covers the latest happenings in the world of cable TV: deals, reviews, previews, new tech gear & more.

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