Personality Crisis: Are Frustration and Heartache all that ‘Vinyl’ has got? | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Personality Crisis: Are Frustration and Heartache all that ‘Vinyl’ has got?

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The ingredients of HBO’s much-hyped new series Vinyl would seem to be foolproof. 

We have the electrifying moment in the mid-’70s when rock’s atrophied old guard was about to be overthrown by the raw eff-you energy of punk on the Lower East Side, with hip-hop taking shape just a few miles to the north in the Bronx. We have legendary tales of nefarious behavior in the now-extinct major-label kingdom run by notorious but fascinating tyrants such as Walter Yetnikoff, Irving Azoff, and Clive Davis, as well as more well-meaning visionaries like Mo Ostin. We have New York City when New York City still was New York City: filthy, gritty, dangerous, rat-infested, and with nary a Disney Store nor a Rainforest Cafe in sight. And we have director Martin Scorsese, the filmic bard of that lost New York (Mean Streets! Taxi Driver! After Hours! Good Fellas!), collaborating as show runner and auteur with Terence Winter (The Sopranos! Boardwalk Empire!) and no less a musical giant than Mick Jagger (who’s been phoning it in since 1978, but who still should be able to summon a touch of the magic from the period that yielded the Rolling Stones’ last great album, Some Girls).

So why, oh why is Vinyl such an abysmal, embarrassing, and disastrous mess?

In the spirit of the all-important pop chart of those years passed, let us count the Top 40 reasons why the first two episodes and three hours of this series have been a major disappointment.

1.) The soundtrack. Oh, most of the choices were spot-on; the problem was that some of these tunes appeared in the versions by the original artists (Slade’s “Mamma Weer All Crazy Now,” ABBA’s “Ring Ring,” and Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” among them), while others were just horrible recent cover versions.

2.) For example, we don’t get the New York Dolls’ original recording of “Personality Crisis,” the most important musical selection for the plot in the two-hour pilot and what may prove to be the spiritual theme for the entire series. Instead, we hear an inferior new version recorded by David Johansen.

3.) Similarly, the hacks hired to re-record the Velvet Underground playing “Run Run Run” and “Venus in Furs” onstage in a flashback in episode two slaughtered those masterpieces.

4.) Led Zeppelin’s songs, heard in the distance of Madison Square Garden during the debut, also were a flaccid imitation of the golden gods thundering over the tundra.

5.) And though Aimee Mann’s new rendition of the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More” is great, it was ruined when a poorly cast Karen Carpenter stand-in appeared in the passenger seat beside Olivia Wilde. (She plays the beleaguered wife of star Bobby Cannavale, who’s the head of the fictional record company American Century, Richie Finestra.) Oh, and while we’re on the topic…

Devon Finestra/Olivia Wilde with her hubby (HBO)

6.) Olivia Wilde. A former lead in House turned mumblecore heroine (sorry, Chicago craft-beer lovers—that’s you, Andrew Gill!—but Drinking Buddies is unwatchable), Wilde seems to believe that OPENING HER DOE EYES REALLY, REALLY WIDE is all it takes to act. But the bigger problem is…

7.) The rampant sexism and one-dimensional female characters. Yes, the ’70s record industry was the unenlightened Wild West, or maybe the era of Roman orgies and sex slaves. But if Mad Men depicted the despicable treatment of women in the workplace of the not-distant-enough past with the goal of underscoring that these men should have been ashamed, Vinyl so far just revels in their bad behavior. Witness:

8.) The many female employees at American Century who exist merely to have their butts slapped, to fetch coffee, or to procure and make readily available the executives’ bounty of illegal substances. (At least the primary keeper of the stash, Juno Temple as aspiring talent scout Jamie Vine, is otherwise the sole female bright spot.) But while we’re on the subject of drugs…

9.) Scorsese already has done the manic-cocaine-binge thing before, and better. Yeah, it was part of the music scene at the time. But it’s hard to watch, as well as being redundant. These scenes make you want to echo Nancy Reagan and just say no.

10.) Back to the women: As written, the domineering and materialistic wife of Finestra’s partner Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano, another of the rare winners in the cast) could not be shriller, pettier, or more of an insulting anti-Semitic caricature. And she’s such an afterthought that despite a substantial presence in episode two, the actress in the role isn’t even listed in any of the official credits!

11.) Ditto, at the opposite end of the one-dimensional sexist spectrum, is Brigette Hjort Sorensen’s Warhol superstar, the model and Devon Finestra pal, Ingrid. (Ingrid, just Ingrid, because why would such a clichéd character need a full name?)

Jamie Vine/Juno Temple with the scheming receptionist (HBO)

12.) And let’s not forget the scheming receptionist who stabs her should-be sister Jamie in the back by ratting out the real source of her “discovery” of punk to the boss. But there’s still another problem with the casting, writing and production:

13.) Actors and actresses portraying musical giants we know and love is a total fail. The thespians playing the members of Zep aren’t even in the the ballpark of resembling, talking, or moving like the real rock gods. Plus…

 14.) Finestra never would have done an end-run around manager Peter Grant to sweet-talk Robert Plant into a deal. He’d know that Jimmy Page was the real power in the group! And…

15.) The actor playing Grant wasn’t a third the size of Led Zeppelin’s infamous enforcer! And he didn’t have a baseball bat! However…

16.) The faux-Velvet Underground was even more of a joke! And…

17.) So were the fake New York Dolls! And…

NOT the New York Dolls (HBO)

18.) So was not-really-Bo Diddley! And…

19.) So was central-casting Jerry Lee Lewis! And…

20.) So was fake Buddy Guy!

21.) And bogus Otis Redding!

22.) And ersatz Ruth Brown!

23.) Actually, every actor and actress playing every fake rock great was embarrassing! If the record company characters are fictional, why aren’t the rock stars?

24.) The work-arounds for this problem were obvious. The producers could have created fictional simulacrums/composites of these musical greats, as Cameron Crowe did in Almost Famous.

25.) Or they could have kept the well-known musical stars in the shadows. Either approach would have been vastly preferable to what we’ve gotten so far, which isn’t even as good as live-band karaoke or a third-tier tribute group.

The Nasty Bits with James Jagger front and center (HBO)

26.) Perhaps worst of all were fictional ascendant punks the Nasty Bits, led by Mick’s son James channeling dad imitating Johnny Rotten. More troubling, though, is the fact that…

27.) The producers seem to be suggesting that a British (or at least a Brit-led) band is inventing punk when we all know that New York exported the sound, attitude, and manic energy to Merry Ol’ England (courtesy of the aforementioned Dolls, and then the Ramones). But that isn’t even the worst of…

28.) The many other historical hiccups. Most television critics have harped about the Dolls not being onstage when the Mercer Arts Center collapsed in ’75 (not in ’73, as shown in episode one). That’s the least troubling of the muddled facts for me; I’ll grant that one as artistic license. Others are more confusing, annoying, and unforgiveable. In an interview with one of my favorite TV critics, Alan Sepinwall, Winter defended playing fast and loose with history: “One of the first things Richie says in the pilot is, ‘Here’s my story clouded by lost brain cells and self-aggrandizement and maybe a little bit of bull---,’ so this is how he remembers it.” But that would not have flown on, say, Winters’ Boardwalk Empire with events as important as, say, Prohibition or World War I. (“Hey, let’s just change the years to fit our story!”) Errors that egregious in this series include:

29.) Episode one suggesting that punk is being born at the same time that Led Zeppelin is preparing to sign its first major-label deal. Meanwhile...

30.) Some people at American Century still inexplicably think England Dan and John Ford Coley are important. And simultaneously…

31.) Hip-hop is about to explode, too, with a faded bluesman-turned-’50s pop star in some sort of influential role. (Go ahead, just try to fight the urge to keep asking, “Wait, what year is this supposed to be? And did that really happen?”)

32.) That bluesman/pop star (Ato Essandoh as Lester Grimes) finds his career ruined after he runs afoul of the mob by standing up to crooked label head and Finestra mentor Maury Gold (Paul Ben-Victor), clearly a stand-in for the infamous Morris Levy of Hit Men. Now, here is a character you’d think Marty would have a ball with! But though he occupies considerable real estate in the first two episodes, the scenes with Gold and the mob were tired and rote. Meanwhile, Marty went full-on gangsta Marty with…

33.) The grisly, prolonged murder of king-slime radio mogul Frank “Buck” Rogers. To be certain, I have no use for Andrew Dice Clay, but his sleazebag radio jerk was phenomenal, with all the makings of the best TV villain since Al Swearengen. Alas, the writers and producers already have killed him off in the least credible of the many hard-to-believe plot twists of episode one.

Frank “Buck” Rogers/Andrew Dice Clay (HBO)

34.) Before I forget, the show’s theme song also stinks. For a series featuring snippets of so many great songs, the show runners couldn’t come up with something better to start every week than Sturgill Simpson’s “Sugar Daddy”? And while we’re at it…

35.) The opening needle-in-the-grooves motif is a cliché and a drag, too. Boardwalk Empire’s theme and oceanfront opening both were better, and they certainly weren’t great.

36.) Every hardcore music fan thinks he or she could do a better job than every major-label talent scout. Still, Max Casella’s head of A&R Julie Silver is such a cartoon clown that he should be wearing face paint. And…

37.) When Richie asks Julie if he should wear the Black Sabbath or Pink Floyd T-shirt to the A&R meeting where he’s about to announce a new (punk) sound aborning, and he goes with the Sabbath, the writers missed the fantastic opportunity for him to choose the Floyd but detourne it by ripping it up and adding an “I Hate…” in Magic Marker, as Johnny Rotten once did.

Julie Silver/Max Casella with Richie and a mysteriously blacked-out Sabbath T (HBO)

38.) Speaking of the dying dinosaurs, Richie breaking a perfectly good Jethro Tull record really was unforgivable! (Alright, that was a joke. But no matter how far out of his gourd he was on booze and coke, no music lover could ever destroy an original Bo Diddley cigar-box guitar as Richie does in a coked-up tantrum!)

39.) Scorsese’s relationship with music is problematic. Sure, he’s made some timeless choices from the rock canon for the soundtracks of some of his films. But he’s overly worshipful of that canon; he’s far too enthralled with the rosy glow of nostalgia, and he’s forever sucking up to his heroes rather than challenging them, as punk did. His Bob Dylan documentary was a toothless bore; his Rolling Stones concert film was even more of a snooze, and let us never forget that he helmed the most slavishly suck-up, horribly overrated rock film of all time, The Last Waltz, as noted by no less a sage than legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. Speaking of whom…

40.) The show namechecks Bangs within its first few minutes—evil receptionist to Richie upon his arrival at the company’s Brill Building offices: “Lester Bangs returned your call!”—though to no good end. Invoking Lester only underscores that someone involved behind the scenes of this mess knows better, and the same is true of the many other cool name-drops so far, among them Captain Beefheart, the MC5, and Suicide. Fellas, you may know the names, but you don’t seem to have gotten the messages.

At least, not yet. We’ll find out if things take a turn for the better—and despite low ratings and skeptical to savage reviews, HBO already has renewed Vinyl for a second season after the first nine episodes.

Wait, did I just say we’ll find out?

Yeah, I did. Despite all of the reasons listed above, and probably many more to come, I’m hooked, if only to hate-watch the damn thing. I mean, how could I not? They namechecked Lester Bangs!

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast or stream Sound Opinions.

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