Tuesday 20 March 2018

Vinyl TV review: Taxi for Martin Scorsese! Taxi!

Vinyl (Sky Atlantic)

Illustration: Jim Cogan.
Illustration: Jim Cogan.
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

When Martin Scorsese was a genius, back in the 1970s, he made a brilliant creative decision - in fact he made several such decisions, but this one was so remarkable it stands as his monument.

He decided, in making the movie The Last Waltz, that the way to tell a story of rock'n'roll music was through rock'n'roll music itself. That The Band and all the other musicians in that movie had created such a body of work, the job of the film-maker was essentially to just get out of the way.

So Scorsese presented it as a concert, with some linking commentary by the musicians about the good times and the bad times they had had along the way, and that was about it. Certainly it turned out to be a very great concert, and it was staged and directed and edited by Scorsese with tremendous acumen, but it wasn't a "movie" in the conventional sense.

There were no actors playing any of the protagonists, there was no "drama" in the sense of a fictional narrative aimed at revealing some bigger truth about this culture. There was nothing that Scorsese could think of, even with all his creative skills, that was better than the music itself.

So he didn't try to impose any of these conventions, he just went with what was there already, and he ended up making a masterpiece. He made his own art form subservient to the one which, in this case at least, was of a superior kind. It was a triumph of taste and judgement.

A lifetime later the same Scorsese, along with co-producer Mick Jagger, brings us the drama series Vinyl, about the music business in the 1970s. The first episode was also directed by Scorsese. If it had been done by some insignificant hack it would be a kind of an embarrassment. That it was done by the great Martin Scorsese makes it a full-blown disgrace.


It is not just that Scorsese knows better, he has actually done better on the same subject. Indeed he has done the best we have ever seen, and yet somehow in the years between The Last Waltz and Vinyl he seems to have forgotten so much.

The one really sound piece of judgement that we find here, is the idea of making a series about the music business of the 1970s in the first place. But everything else about it is just wrong.

I suggested last week in this paper that the trailer was not very promising, with its bog-standard scenes of men smashing guitars and snorting cocaine and roaring for money. But the trouble with Vinyl is not just its spewing out of every "rawk'n'roll" cliche known to humanity, the trouble is that Scorsese has made one of his gangster movies here, with the "rawk'n'roll" thrown in just to provide him with a change of ambiance.

Of course, in his other gangster movies - the ones that are officially described as gangster movies - he has used "rawk'n'roll" to tremendous effect on the soundtracks. Here he just raises the music a bit higher in the mix, and proceeds with his ancient routines of male violence, including scenes which are so familiar to anyone who has seen Goodfellas or Casino they seem like straight self-parody.

Naturally, the first episode features a murder in which some drug-maddened psychopath has his head smashed to smithereens by other drug-maddened psychopaths. To which we say: why?

Why can Martin Scorsese, maker of The Last Waltz, no longer think of a way to tell a story of rock'n'roll except by having guys whacking each other?

Certainly there have been any amount of drug-maddened psychopaths in the music business, but for some weird reason they generally manage not to kill one another, at least not as far as we know.

In trying to fathom the terrible badness of this production, I am reminded of one of those movies about football which merely demonstrate that movie-makers just have no idea how to make movies about football - again they don't understand that they are dealing with a superior art-form, as such, one that is sufficient unto itself, and the more they try to dramatise it with their own little box of tricks, the more ridiculous it becomes.

Scorsese used to know such things, he knew them so well.

What happened, Marty?

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