Vinyl (2016) Directed by Martin Scorsese

Why is it so difficult to make good movies or TV series about making music? Picturing the process of songwriting, the life of a creative so often appears phoney to me. What about the life of a person who helps these creatives to be heard? The music business with its mix of risk taking, creativity, art  
and business and consumerism seems like a fantastic topic for a new HBO series. Yet, the pilot of Vinyl leaves me shuddering in disappointed horror. Remember Robin Wright in Forrest Gump yelling 'run Forest run' and then shaking through various cliches of heroin addiction, violent activist boyfriends and ultimately dying of the no-name-killer disease? In my opinion it isn't great if in 2016 I have to sit through yet another depiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s from that same Forrest Gump perspective.

Robin Wright in Forrest Gump
I take watching Vinyl personally. Yes, I live and breathe in the world of music making, performing and the business side too. I also have romantic notions about New York City in the early 1970s and the creative buzz I imagine over the worn-down city. Ironically, I share this blog and a household with my husband who comes from an Italian immigrant family and who also happens to be running his own record label. So, even if I try to distance myself from the home scene and the fictive story, the parallels are heavy Рbut boy and girl, are the times different in Helsinki 2016! This proximity to the subject matter is why I am allergic to the way Vinyl parodies everything to the point of clich̩ and worse. It makes cartoonish mixtures of oral histories, Scorsese classics, fiction and facts. It trivialises the meaning of art making by suggesting that the scene was only about decadence and destruction for no reason.

Olivia Wilde in Vinyl
I am aware that this harsh criticism comes after just one episode of a series. Yes, there is hope that something better will grow out of the series. Maybe we are better off with younger directors, who do more than just mimic their past styles and successes. Maybe we need more Mick Jagger here and less actors trying to be Mick. We need to forget about thinking of this as capitalist development and really go for the punk that is bubbling under the surface. At this point though, New York, New York directed by Scorsese in 1977 is a better description of the music business than Vinyl. And a final feminist argument: just because men are the main protagonists in your drama does not mean that your perspective has to be utterly misogynist. Here's to hoping for surprising twists and turns on Vinyl.

Still from the Vinyl trailer for HBO
So last week it finally creeped up on me. 50 years of age. I was born when England won The World Cup and The Beatles and The Beach Boys started their fight to the death as to who released the supposed greatest album ever (are you for Revolver or Pet Sounds?) In any case, we threw a party and many friends and family from England flew over and I even managed to get my band together and make some loud noise. Tired, hung over and a flu fast approaching is where I find myself now writing this. Or could it just be old age? Shit. Some friends even got me some vinyl. The black stuff that spins. Right now I've been indulging in heavy vinyl purchasing. I'm pretty poor compared to most but I'll always manage to scrape up some money for a piece of the black stuff. I'm slowly replacing a very large vinyl collection I sold before I moved to Finland a very long time ago. So, as you can probably guess, when news leaked last year that the very great Martin Scorsese was going to launch an HBO series called Vinyl about the New York underground music scene from the early 1970's, I was bound to be at the least piqued. So, understand me when I tell you the supreme disappointment of the pilot two hours snooze-a-thon that was the first episode of Vinyl. Turns out that the New York underground was populated by white middle aged men on the prowl for some action – drugs, sex and rock'n'roll. Is correct no?

Bobby Cannavale as A&R man Richie Finestra feels the rock'n'roll force 
Vinyl is produced by Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire/HBO fame. Winter and Scorsese have got form: Winter wrote the screenplay for Wolf of Wall Street, whilst they both act as producers on Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese directed the Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light, so he's in with Jagger. Scorsese is 73, Mick Jagger is 72, whilst Winter weighs in with a modest 55 years. But this should tell you all you need to know about Vinyl. It's old white men (much like those that run the music business) telling us about rebel youth. The pilot is directed by Scorsese himself. Sadly, we get the over-indulgent Scorsese from Wolf Of Wall Street rather than that true New York street movie Mean Streets. Where once Marty brought us tight and taught he now peddles overwrought and flabby. Scorsese has given us heavy doses of Vinyl throughout his career, much of what we see in the pilot could be taken from Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets and any Scorsese film involving a banging rock'n'roll soundtrack and copious amounts of drug taking. To confound Vinyl even more, the main role of flailing A&R executive Richie Finestra is given to Bobby Cannavale (a daddy Travolta in Saturday Night Fever ringer), a journeyman actor who doesn't elicit the right sense of wear withal A&R genius his character supposedly possesses. As an A&R man of many years myself, I just don't relate to Ritchie. Vinyl is unable to process the inner workings of something that admittedly isn't so easy to portray. This alone makes it difficult for me to relate.

Will this bunch manage to sign the next big thing?
Vinyl also displays an unapologetic sexist and cliched depiction of the music business. Vinyl brings no insight or new perspective to this world or profession. We're merely dealing with well worn territory here. There is an uneasy mix of fact and fiction which I can't quite decide is complete bollocks or a real smart turn. So we see actors playing members of Led Zeppelin and The New York Dolls rubbing shoulders with fictional bands and characters (and since when did Johnny Thunders look like a member of Santa Cruz?) Period details, especially flashbacks to the 1960's look very 1990's which in itself is sloppy. Scorsese's pilot takes an age to get going. The last half an hour picks up, giving you some hope to maybe check out the next episode (and the main interest here ironically is non-music related).

Episode two, not directed by Scorsese, already seems more linear and engaging, with Cannavale even beginning to warm up. But inner workings of musical chemistry don't really rub off here and I'd point you towards Scorsese's own New York, New York for a much better picture of this kind of creativity (even if the era's don't match). Ultimately, one wonders who Vinyl is for? The +40 audience craving for a certain kind of nostalgia will already know this territory well, versed in monthly doses of Mojo magazine and the incipient selling of its past by the music business. A younger audience simply won't relate to these middle aged white men. The fact that Scorsese et al. can't inject any fresh excitement into this fable perhaps paints a larger picture of the general decline of popular music as a cultural force. And Vinyl's pilot at the least confirms a slight decline in Scorsese himself. At one time not so long ago Vinyl would have been a must see, an event, unprecedented and unique, the zeitgeist film maker showing it like it is. This poses the question if Scorsese will reach his own high standards again? Don't go looking for those from Vinyl.


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