Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale, two-time Emmy® winner, Boardwalk Empire), the founder and president of American Century Records, is trying to save his company and soul without destroying everyone in his path. With his passion for music and discovering talent gone by the wayside, and American Century on the precipice of being sold, he has a life-altering event that reignites his love of music, but severely damages his personal life. The drama features an amazing all-star cast including SAG Award nominee Olivia Wilde (Doll and Em), and multiple Emmy® winner Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond). Scorsese, Jagger and Winter executive produce along with Victoria Pearman, Rick Yorn, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, John Melfi, Allen Coulter and George Mastras. Executive music producer, Mick Jagger. Winter serves as showrunner.
Brought to HBO by much of the same team that put together Boardwalk Empire, 'Vinyl' attempts to tell the story of rock n' roll in the 1970s through the eyes of record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), who, as the pilot episode unfolds, is having second thoughts about selling his nearly-bankrupt company to a group of German investors. A near-death experience gives Richie the inspiration to try and save his record label, much to the chagrin of his staff, including promotions head Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), head of A&R Julie Silver (Max Casella), and head of sales Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie).
But his company's potential downfall isn't the only thing that's got Richie so stressed out. He's also participated in (although he's not primarily responsible for) the murder of Frank 'Buck" Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay), a radio station owner with possible mob ties. To add to his angst, Richie's problems have caused him to surrender to drug addiction, leading to troubles at home with his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde). Season One chronicles how things for Richie go from bad to worse, with his company, his marriage, and his possible freedom (from jail) all hanging in the balance.
Throughout all this, 'Vinyl' introduces viewers to a whole slew of popular musicians, bands, and famous figures from the '70s – as everyone from Alice Cooper to Elvis seems to have a cameo during these 10 episodes, all played by actors who resemble the performers (most of them eerily good in their parts). Even the main cast itself is touched by a bit of celebrity as both the son of Executive Producer Mick Jagger (James Jagger, playing the front man of a punk rock band) and the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan (Jack Quaid, playing a member of Richie's A&R team) have ongoing roles.
Executive Producer Martin Scorsese directs the two-hour pilot for 'Vinyl' (which was shot a year before the other episodes were filmed) and visually speaking at least, it's stunning – featuring quick cuts, a voice-over by the lead character, and the continual bombardment of great 70s tunes. In other words, pretty much everything we'd expect something from Scorsese to look like. In terms of storytelling, though...and honestly just downright coherence...Scorsese's presentation is a bit of a mess. He clearly wants to present 'Vinyl' as somewhat of a dark comedy, but he never reels in the performances and the result is actors who seem to be having much more fun than the audience at home. Everything is over-the-top and aggressive and I dare say that this is one of the lesser Scorsese efforts in recent memory.
The problem for the remainder of the first season's episodes (none of which Scorsese directed) is that the various directors must now follow Scorsese's lead in terms of pacing and tone. Thankfully, they manage to pull back on the reins a bit, so the remainder of the entries don't feel like such a chore to sit through. The best carryover from Scorsese's pilot are little musical interludes/vignettes that are sprinkled in here and there featuring a popular song and an actors playing the famous musician or group. These short moments are not part of the main storyline, however the song always has something to do with the tone of the episode or a situation that a particular character is dealing with. Often, these are the best parts of each 'Vinyl' episode.
The biggest issue I had with 'Vinyl' is the lead character, Richie, played by Bobby Cannavale. There's no doubt that Cannavale – although often way over the top – is very good in the part. The problem here, however, is that there's very little that is redeeming about his character. Unlike the prior two series that showrunner Terence Winter worked on, Cannavale's Richie Finestra doesn't have the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson. Audiences cared about those guys, regardless of the many bad things they were involved in. It's hard to care about Richie because of his nasty drug habit, the bad choices he keeps making, and the fact that – honestly – he's mostly an ass to everyone around him. The creators would like us to root for Richie's redemption, but they really don't give us much to root for.
'Vinyl' has a lot of problems (so much that the end of Season One resulted in the dismissal of Terence Winter from the series by HBO execs, although the show will be coming back for Season Two - Edit: HBO decided to not go forward with the second season and announced its cancellation on June 22nd), but it's not completely dismissible. Fans of '70s music, in particular, may find a lot to enjoy in the series, and even if one doesn't find themselves engrossed in the story, there's lots going on visually and some good actors involved, even if they aren't always given the most interesting exchanges. I'm not quite recommending this one, but feel free to give it a look if this is a topic/genre/setting you think you might be interested in...just be sure to watch a couple episodes beyond the pilot if you do, as I feel the that first episode is far and away the worst of the bunch (despite being helmed by one of our greatest directors).
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Season One of 'Vinyl' gets pressed onto Blu-ray in a slightly oversized Elite keepcase in which the four 50GB discs are placed on a pair of plastic hubs. Inserts consist of a code for an iTunes and UltraViolet copy of the season, an advertisement for 'Vinyl' merchandise (as well as a 20% off code) at the online HBO store, and a chance to win a TV and Blu-ray player in exchange for filling out an online HBO/Cinemax survey.
The keepcase slick actually doesn't feature any text on it, just a black and white photo of a rock band performing. The flip side of the slick (seen from inside the case) contains a list of the episodes and special features, along with a collage of stills from Season One. The keepcase slides inside a sturdy cardboard slip cover, with a slightly embossed version of the series main promotional artwork (star Bobby Cannavale rocking a pair of reflective sunglasses) on the front. A piece of removable cardboard (containing a synopsis of the series, special features, and Blu-ray specs) is attached to the back cover (with the top portion fitting over the top of the slip cover, as seen on many other HBO season set releases).
There are no front-loaded trailers or materials on any of the Blu-rays. The main menu consists of a montage of footage from the episodes (in multiple boxes on the screen) showing over audio of Nasty Bits' 'A Woman Like You'. The combination of music and footage makes for a mini-music video that is certainly worth sitting through (it continues to loop after finished) before one jumps into the episodes. Menu selections are towards the bottom left of the screen, and open up to various other parts of the screen when selected.
The Blu-rays are region-free.
Each episode of 'Vinyl' was shot digitally on Arri Alexa cameras and is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Even though these shows are produced with digital cameras, an obvious effort has been made to make each entry look like it was shot on film. Faux grain has been added in post-production, and it's layered on heavily. Also, the image overall tends to lean towards the brownish-side of things (although there's plenty of those wild 70s colors and fashions to enjoy), giving the show the appearance of something that is not only set in the 1970s, but looks like it was shot then as well.
Even with the grainy look, there's still a great amount of detail to be found in almost every shot, allowing viewers to enjoy just how far the creators have gone to make sure every little item in the background is 70s-based. Best of all, I detected no digital glitches in the episodes – so no problems with aliasing, banding, or the like. Because of the way the digital image has been manipulated, the grainy look is a little more obtrusive in darker scenes of the series, but nothing that distracts too much or prevents viewers from making out many of the background details.
This may not be the sharpest-looking series you'll see from HBO, but these transfers are consistent and give an accurate depiction of the presentation as it appeared on the cable network.
Other than the select commentary tracks (detailed in our Supplements section below), the only available audio for each episode is 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio, which may not blow listeners/viewers away, but certainly packs enough punch for a series such as 'Vinyl'.
Of course, one of the big draws of this series is the selection of 70s tunes that are spread across each episode – both on-screen performances and soundtrack music. I'm happy to report that both sound great and will take advantage of one's home theater set-up. Other than the music sounding great, however, there's not a whole lot of going on. Ambient sounds are noticeable in the rear speakers in many scenes, but there's almost zero use of directionality and LFE use is equally rare (aside from a closing scene in the pilot, which I won't spoil here). Dialogue is exclusively front and center, and sounds crisp with a proper balance between it and the other audio, so no worries there.
However, even though the tracks here don't necessarily 'wow', there's no major (or even minor) problems of which to speak. No dropouts or other technical glitches are apparent, and the overall mix for each episode provides for a pleasant listen.
Subtitles are available in English SDH.
Note: In addition to the bonus materials listed below, each episode (including the Pilot) includes a "Preview" option, which is a short clip-filled look (each runs about 40 seconds) of the episode in question. Interestingly, all the previews for each of the 10 episodes appear on every disc in this set, despite the fact that (obviously) the episodes are divided up among the four Blu-rays.
'Vinyl' is one of those series that both looks and sounds great, but offers storylines that are really hard to get into (and occasionally even follow). It's biggest fault through is that it offers up an anti-hero as the main character who most viewers are going to have trouble relating to or sympathizing with. I struggled at times to get involved in the story, but there is a good deal of solid acting, great music, and outstanding production design. I can't quite recommend it, but I still think 'Vinyl' is worth a look.