Review: HBO’s ‘Vinyl’ plays like a scratched record

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Sex, drugs, rock and roll, murder and money. What could go wrong?

Quite a bit, actually.

HBO’s newest drama series, “Vinyl,” is supposed to be a look inside the record industry circa 1973, an inside peek at how that industry reflected the lurid and corrupt nature of the era. Fine. But its such a herky-jerky, uneven and, at times, outright boring exercise that it never sucks you in.

The series is built around label owner Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale, sweating a lot), who’s just on the verge of selling his business to the German conglomerate Polygram. There are just a few problems. The label is bleeding money, needs fresh acts, and Richie is torn between taking the money and finding some “real” rock to promote. Plus, by the end of the two-hour premiere, Richie is a coke-snorting madman, which doesn’t help.

That premiere episode is directed by Martin Scorsese, who’s also executive producing the show with Mick Jagger. It may be the most off-kilter work Scorsese has ever done.

Right from the beginning, situations seem staged and awkward. Scorsese also kicks off one of the series’ most clunky ideas: Rock star impersonators of all stripes keep popping up in bizarre places. Suddenly Bo Diddley is playing by a swimming pool, or Karen Carpenter is sitting in a car as a character drives along. What?

If that sounds like name-dropping, it’s only the beginning. Robert Plant, Alice Cooper and Robert Goulet (!) all come through as characters, and the show keeps returning to Lou Reed as the essence of authenticity. Which might be a good marker if the guy playing Lou Reed looked like Lou Reed.

To be sure, there are some fine performances, notably by Olivia Wilde as Richie’s former Warhol girl wife; Juno Temple as an ambitious gofer who wants to work her way up; and Ray Romano as Richie’s beleaguered right-hand man. But they’re mostly drowned in the confusion as the show veers from drama to farce to mostly poor musical interludes.

For a show about keeping it real, “Vinyl” rings very false. At one point Alice Cooper asks a label A&R guy — think talent scout — if he’s heard of Todd Rundgren. The A&R guy is clueless. But this is 1973, and by that time Rundgren had sold literally millions of albums; everybody in the music business knew who he was. It’s one more bad note in a would-be rock ‘n’ roll symphony that’s full of them.

Tom Long is the former film critic for The Detroit News



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