Monday, July 4, 2016

Do We Really Want Vinyl Anymore?

It's 1973 and Richie Finestra is about to sell his minor record label to German acquirers on the promise of it bringing the weight of Led Zeppelin. He's cleaned up his act, having dragged his young family through alcohol and cocaine excess and now is settling in to what looks like a comfortable middle age. Things go wrong almost straight away. Soon enough he's back on the bad stuff and rediscovering his wild beast as he sees a New York Dolls show so explosive it seems to bring the house down, literally. We get glimpses of where he's come from, the mafia connections, the blues guy he tried to popularise but had to sell to the mob. Now, with all this guilt and rapacious nihilism beckoning, we join him in the decade of decadance. so why isn't Vinyl any good?

First, the time travel tourism it falls into with a mix of composites (there's a Sly Stone alike who's actually pretty intriguing), anachronisms of convenience (hip hop style sampling shown at its birth) and actors playing historical figures like Robert Plant. This could work well but so much of it is laboured and indulgence-begging. The intended thrill of "hey, that's Lou Reed" does not progress further than the appearance of historical figures in music bios like The Doors or Walk the Line as namechecking.  The cockney-led band that look and sound like late '70s punks feel less like what is to be than a grab at a kind of retrospective prescience (hey, we knew about this stuff  back in '73). The era would be more compelling if we saw what we had to do without.

Second, Richie Finestra stands at the end of a long line of bad guy heroes who bellow with machismo and lumber into plot-thickening disasters of judgement. Like the mafia scenes his characterisation feels tired, like a nineteen year old whizz bang rocker churning out powerchords like Pete Townshend never happened. His identikit features, brutally handsome, sensitive but oafish, honorable but sneaky, with a ton of hooky vices to bring him down when the going gets a little too good. The extra here is a sense of vision he is supposed to harbour despite all the crassness of the music industry around him pressing in. But this vision all too frequently gets articulated as the kind of cliches that would make a fanzine blush. He's not a maverick of the record industry, he's a cover version, note perfect but not the real thing.

See, Tony Soprano had the chaos of a whole crime empire to contain while dealing with his own instability. Same with Nucky Edwards but the constant outbreaks of all out war and terrifying decisions wore him thin. Don Draper ground against his times that were a-changin' until, at rock bottom, he found a way of absorbing and exploiting them, learning very little in the process. But by the time we get to Richie Finestra the thing that sets in for me is exhaustion. He's a loser who, by all appearances, fully deserves to keep losing. It's very hard to watch this and not just because of the constant parade of failure. We've reached peak male psycho from US cable series. There's no turning back.

Third, if you look around Richie's thundering bulk you will see a whole cast of incompletely drawn but enticing characters whose stories, if awarded some lasting focus, could really get something done. The tiny but wonderful Juno Temple does so much with her upstart character Jamie that you want to drag her back into the room with every exit. She uses her frail physicality to emphasis her force. The story from her perspective, of lack of power striving to consolidate and triumph, is instantly more watchable than Richie's. Richie's wife played by the impressive Oliva Wilde, does enough with the trouble the story gives her, also to give more to viewers than the Finestral centre. Ray Romano proves there is life after mediocrity as the hapless Zak, colleague of Richie. Even Jack Quaid's Clark Morelle, a young Ivy Leaguer fallen on hard times in the mail room who explores the newly forming world of disco would give us a hotter centre. But what we get is more of the same. Bobby Carnavale who tries to inject Finestra with charm and charisma but is hampered by writing that keeps him snowed in, is an alumnus of Boardwalk Empire. He was the super bad guy of one of the seasons. It feels like he's just changed costumes.

Vinyl is the creation of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, two figures I'd normally trust to tell the tale of the record industry in the '70s. But the problem is not that these two lack any insights into the setting and era, both lived there and did some of their very best work in that environment. The problem is that we're getting the perspectives of the present day versions of them. Scorsese has long abandoned the energy that kept his films so electric (why does Taxi Driver still feel new but The Aviator seem dated?) Jagger has seemed happy enough for decades to float on a reef of laurels, distant in every way from the greatness that his younger self so fiercely created. Vinyl feels old fashioned the way that Oliver Stone's The Doors or Sid and Nancy did when they were new, plugged full of cliche and indulgence. There's still an interesting story to tell here but it isn't that of Richie Finestra, the very lumbering relic that the punks on the distant horizon would name dinosaur. Look around him. Write there. Shoot there. And we'll be there.

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