In the summer of 1980, before MTV brought the New Wave into the mainstream, Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” spent two weeks at the top of the charts. The song’s imagined argument between a musician and his publicist aimed much of its ire at the wrong target—the “hot funk, cool punk” of the era’s rising stars—but if Joel’s resistance to pop music’s “next phase” now seems shortsighted, his critique of the preference for image over sound is as apt today as ever. With FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, HBO’s Vinyl,, Showtime’s Roadies, and Netflix’s The Get Down, the subgenre we might call the “rock ‘n’ roll TV series”—set backstage and behind the scenes, at concert venues, recording studios, and corporate offices—is in the midst of a revival, one regrettable for its frequent failure to focus on the drama of the music’s making. As Joel knew, pink sidewinders and white wall tires are forms of ornamentation, flourishes that dress up, or drown out, the main part of the melody, and TV’s recent spate of musical series appears, in the same vein, to be more interested in the trappings of the milieu than in the art form at its center. “Don’t you know about the new fashion honey?” the publicist asks in Joel’s prescient foot-tapper. “All you need are looks and a whole lotta money.”
On TV, of course, image matters. But if Vinyl’s bloated budget was meant to capture the moment Joel’s “new sound” burst forth from underground clubs and derelict warehouses, its slapdash construction runs closer to faddishness: It wears the right clothes and listens to the right records, but its self-assured glamour runs only skin deep. Set in New York in 1973, Vinyl, created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter, clarifies the problem with this crop of rock ‘n’ roll TV series, in part because it holds the solution at arm’s length. As I wrote for Indiewire in May, its boisterous opening—which recalls the fiendish enthusiasm of Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, the finest concert doc ever made—and its fanciful musical sequences, replicating the effect of fugue states, of dreams, translate the language of notes and staves into that of movement and color. Strip away the series’ antiheroic clichés and threadbare subplots, and what’s left is an intoxicating attempt to visualize music’s midcentury evolution, from twelve-bar blues to proto-disco.
It’s in crafting a narrative to match that Vinyl stumbles, leaning on murder and the mob to generate drama, rather than record exec Richie Finestra’s (Bobby Cannavale) complicated relationship with art and commerce. As the season drags on, the music’s grip on the series loosens, as if it were an opening act or a background singer instead of the main draw, and the same might be said of both Cameron Crowe’s uneven Roadies and Denis Leary’s dreadful Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll: Though neither is as solemn as Vinyl, their oft-stated appreciation for the music fails to gain purchase, relegated to periodic declarations of love. “I’m in New York City, in the middle of the rock scene, and all I care about is the music,” Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the daughter of Leary’s Johnny Rock, sighs in the latter’s second season, referring to life without threesomes and blow. “It’s sad. I feel like I’m missing out a little.”
This is meant to be funny, and it might be if Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll were not so determined to prove its classic-rock bona fides. In the first season, with its simpering criticism of “Millennial” musical tastes, Johnny sounds as much the curmudgeon as Billy Joel, railing against “auto-tuned, pop-schlocky Katy Perry bullshit” as if all he hears are Top 40 hits; the second features more than one awkward collision between the satirical and the sincere, accepting the notion that rockers are vain and selfish, while encouraging us to believe that the former members of Johnny’s band, the Heathens, value the music above all else. His friend and rival, Flash (John Corbett), might preen for an impromptu photo shoot, but when he duets with Johnny’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Ava (Elaine Hendrix), in VHS footage from 1994, he flushes with affection: Song is the conduit for the characters’ emotions, the point at which the self meets the world.
As in Vinyl, however, this seductive interlude, which calls to mind Keith Carradine crooning “I’m Easy” to Lily Tomlin in Nashville, is the exception, not the rule. Where HBO’s drama prefers dour plotting, FX’s comedy errs on the side of labored quips and hackneyed gags, the outré funeral-wear and lesbian flings of the rock ‘n’ roll TV series’ most stale conceit: that the sex and drugs of the title, the dissoluteness, is as engaging as the music itself. Johnny and the Heathens, popular in the ‘90s but brought up on the music of Vinyl, reflect much the same nostalgia as the HBO series, unspecific and therefore suffocating. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, in which “Toto—the band, not the dog” qualifies as a punch line, treats the meaning of the music as self-evident, and so relies on the characters’ excesses for both its sense of humor and its narrative structure, its boilerplate gloss on the past. Not unlike Vinyl, the series convinces itself of its connoisseurship, and so fails to see that its hoary tales of rock’s halcyon days are already completely played out.
It occurs to me, in the context of Roadies, that concerts, tours, and studio sessions are a subject for cinema, not television—that the commonplaces of the genre, comforting in the brief course of Crowe’s Almost Famous, become monotonous when stretched to the length of a season, unable to sustain the characters, as two hours become eight or ten. After all, when it comes to Crowe, there’s no question the music matters—see his early writing for Rolling Stone, or the sonic intelligence of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything—but Roadies nonetheless slips into the broad strokes of the know-nothing, from the groupie (Jacqueline Byers) sucking on a lead singer’s mic to Rainn Wilson’s arrogant, unpleasant blogger. As it follows the crew of the Staton-House Band from one arena to the next, the series’ dull-as-a-butter-knife comic sensibilities clash, à la Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, with the wistful bromides of the ensemble’s idealists, in the form of “rousing” speeches and “thoughtful” letters. “I guess I forgot, the key to this whole fucking thing is family,” the repentant blogger writes after an encounter with the roadies. “The feeling you get from a perfect song, and you realize you’re not alone.”
Curious, then, that the foremost feature of the new rock ‘n’ roll TV series seems to be the reluctance to use musical performance as either narrative strategy or aesthetic technique. In Vinyl, such sequences peter out as the series fecklessly attempts to follow Mad Men’s dramatic arc; in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, they’re relegated to long-lost videos and interrupted by smashed guitars. Even Roadies, in which sweeping, poetic montages of the preparations for one or another concert suggest the crew’s own, unsung craft, and the sound checks for the Staton-House Band’s ever-changing warm-up acts suggest the simple power of a distinctive tune, manages to find time for but one performance per episode. However, it’s in the off-the-cuff changes to Reignwolf’s unpolished rhythms, or Lindsey Buckingham’s spare, acoustic “souvenir,” that the series stumbles upon the reason for the roadies’ dedication, the little lightning bolts of inspiration that define the aficionado’s relationship to the art. It’s as if, embarrassed to admit their association with the musical—a genre too far-fetched, too optimistic, and, let’s face it, too queer for the trite, cocksure swagger of “prestige TV”—Vinyl, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, and Roadies seem, at times, to dispense with the music altogether. From these series, the feeling you get from a perfect song, emphasis on feeling, is functionally absent.
The Get Down, from Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, might be even more cumbersome than Vinyl—there’s no discernible reason for the first episode’s 93-minute running time, except that Netflix has deep pockets and Luhrmann burns dollar bills to keep warm—but it bears the imprint of its creators’ extensive experience on the stage, mustering more musical zeal than the other three series combined. As aspiring MC Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith) murmurs verses at the kitchen sink, or his love interest, Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), tests her range with a “superflicious” ballad,” The Get Down edges closer in affect to Singin’ in the Rain or West Side Story than to its brethren on TV: “I need to dust it off,” Mylene says of a hidebound hymn in the second episode, reflecting the series’ perspective. “Shake it up. Turn it upside down.”
Whether a function of its interest in the origins of hip-hop—as opposed to rock ‘n’ roll—or the spirited optimism of its protagonists, determined to escape, or transform, the South Bronx, The Get Down is buoyed by its kinetic energies, even as it strains to bring its sprawling cast and sociopolitical interests into sharper relief. Each episode is a kaleidoscope of musical influences, from a disco dance number reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever to a framing device that features ‘90s rap; Zeke and his friends pass a blunt to their remixed rendition of “The Pink Panther” theme (“A hip, a hop, a hip a hip a hop…”), while Mylene and hers sway to “Turn the Beat Around” as if the percussion carried an electric current. Throughout the first six episodes, the camera combats the intermittent sluggishness of the writing, zooming, swooping, circling and retreating before cycling back to the beginning, painted all the while in bright swatches of color: a pair of immaculate red Pumas, the checkerboard pattern of a crowded dance floor, a purple crayon or a champagne gown. The Get Down recalls the aforementioned classics not because it’s made with similar aplomb, then, but because the series’ chaotic construction nonetheless reflects the musical’s central premise: The music isn’t the setting for the story. The music is the story.
When Mylene breaks ranks from her choir to impress a record producer, in the breathtaking performance that concludes the second episode, The Get Down gestures at its rejection of the rock ‘n’ roll TV series’ well-trod path: Slicing through the scrum of her father’s Sunday service, Mylene’s high note, reaching its zenith as the producer prepares to leave, suggests the ecstasies of religious experience, of music as an expression of otherwise inexpressible sentiments, not a costume to be worn or a pose to be struck. By comparison, Vinyl, Roadies, and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll might maintain a passing resemblance to entries in the medium’s “golden age,” but none seems capable of moving past the limits of nostalgia.
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways: It’s still rock ‘n’ roll TV.
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.