The Film: 4/5
A decade ago Mike Peters, the former lead singer of the 1980's Welsh rock band The Alarm, orchestrated an elaborate plan where his band released a new single "45 RPM" but claimed it had actually been recorded by a band of teen rockers called The Poppy Fields. Though this band didn't really exist that didn't stop them from becoming the hottest new group on the British music scene. They even had their own music video. Once the ruse was made public Peters admitted that it was tough for a band that had officially broken up in 1991 to appear relevant despite the fact that their talents for song writing and performance had not faded away but was stronger than ever before. It wouldn't matter how good the song was or if England's youth loved it because once it was known that it had been performed by a bunch of middle-aged men "45 RPM" would suddenly appear lame. According to Peters, "In Britain we're too quick to want to find the next big thing. If you're over 35 you're dismissed as over-the-hill."
The short-lived fame and pop chart glory of Peters and The Poppy Fields has been turned - with the requisite name changes and artistic license taken with the true events - into the film Vinyl. Sara Sugarman, whose previous credits include the Lindsay Lohan comedy Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, directed from her own screenplay (co-written with Jim Cooper) based upon the real story. It helped a great deal that she had played in a punk band managed by Mike Peters as a teenager and appeared as an actor in Alex Cox's reality-sourced punk psychodrama Sid & Nancy and his gonzo, punk-saturated spaghetti western riff Straight to Hell. Her love of the music and the spirited, often damaged eccentrics who brought it to life infuses every second of Vinyl, every skewed camera angle and every humorous line of dialogue tinged with bitter regret.
The film's Mike Peters stand-in is aging rocker Johnny Jones (Phil Daniels). Once upon a time he lead the British punk group The Weapons of Happiness to rock and roll glory, but as the story begins it has been twenty years since the band split over the usual issues of money and ego. Johnny reunites with his old band-mates Robbie (Perry Benson), Minto (Keith Allen), and Griff (Christopher Roy Turner) at the funeral of their old comrade Thrasher, and after an evening of heavy drinking at their former favorite pub they retire to a sprawling manor house owned by the successful businessman Robbie and break into an impromptu jam session which results in the recording of a song Johnny wrote called "Free Rock 'n' Roll". After the band sobers up and listens to the finished song their fearless leader believes they might have a shot at a comeback, but no one except Johnny is keen on resuscitating their punk careers. Johnny takes the song to a record company who loves the killer tune but isn't too hip to the idea of marketing a group of has beens to a generation of teen music lovers who might only know of The Weapons of Happiness because their parents used to listen to them back in the day.
That's what Johnny gets the idea to create a new band of younger musicians called The Single Shots which he will use as a front to get "Free Rock 'n' Roll" on the radio and expose the hypocrisy of the music industry, and hopefully reignite The Weapons as rock stars. He convinces his band mates to go along with the hoax and together their recruit Fly (Will Peters), Zed (Joel Sugarman), and Flora (Alexa Davies) through a series of cringe-inducing auditions. Street musician Drainpipe (Jamie Blackley) arrives at the last minute and impresses the Weapons with his authentic musical talent. Johnny initially doesn't think much of the kid, but after seeing him perform on the street he takes Drainpipe under his wing and the two form a close bond. After whipping the rank amateurs into somewhat fighting shape and manufacturing their image, history, and relationships, Johnny unleashes the Single Shots on an unsuspecting England and watches happily as they become pop stars thanks to the growing success of "Free Rock 'n' Roll". Things appear to be going smoothly until the other members of the Weapons start demanding that Johnny reveal the truth about the song's origins and allow them to reap the rewards only they really deserve, which Johnny is reluctant to do. Soon other personal matters and the threat of litigation from the record company arise and when the Single Shots are booked to perform live on a popular music television show Johnny's intricate plan to reclaim his fading glory days puts his relationships with his wife Jules (Julia Ford), his band mates, and Drainpipe in jeopardy.
I had so much fun watching Vinyl. Sugarman's film is a fizzy, bittersweet comedy made with the pure love of anarchic punk rock and the clashing personalities responsible for its greatness. She could have taken the story down the path of harsh, kitchen sink reality and made a film closer to life in depicting the cruelty with which music legends are treated, but instead she chose a more optimistic tone. That was the right way to go because this is not a story of broken dreams and vile individuals trying to rebuild their own careers on the backs of others. The focal characters of Vinyl are complex people tempted by the empty promises that the world of rock music tosses in their face while being partially or fully aware of the potential consequences of giving in and leading lives of nightly gigs, drunken debauchery, and the adoration of thronging groupies. As I watching Vinyl the films that most often came to mind were Tom Hanks' 1996 directorial debut That Thing You Do (which was about a relatively unknown pop band who explode onto the charts with an infectious single) and Brian Gibson's affectionate 1999 comedy Still Crazy. Gibson's film and Sugarman's shared the common characteristics of aging British rockers trying futilely to set aside old differences and rivalries in order to resume chasing their old dreams of rock superstardom. Still Crazy played like a real-life updating of the comedy classic This is Spinal Tap and its characters and dialogue have the occasional sting of the truth, which Vinyl flirts with but never comes close to consummating.
Bands like The Buzzcocks (whose guitarist and vocalist Steve Diggle makes a cameo appearance as himself) and The Sex Pistols are mentioned frequently throughout Vinyl. In fact, Johnny's plan is referred to on several occasions as a "rock 'n' roll swindle", which brings to mind the Pistols' sole feature film vehicle - 1980's The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle, which began life as a Russ Meyer feature with a Roger Ebert script called Who Killed Bambi? That was to have been the grand culmination of band manager Malcolm McLaren's carefully orchestrated multimedia campaign to sell the Pistols to the public at large and make out financially like a bandit before the entire enterprise completely fell apart, which is not too different from Johnny Jones' own plan to prank the British popular music scene. Vinyl co-star Perry Benson, a droll hoot as Robbie, played Pistols' drummer Paul Cook in the aforementioned Sid & Nancy. Rock and rock cinema flows like heroin-soaked blood through this movie's veins.
Sugarman and Cooper pack their screenplay with far too many characters for each to get a single noteworthy moment in the narrative, resulting in several cast members getting short shrift in favor of more scenes centered around the growing relationship between Johnny and Drainpipe and the fallback from the band scheme. A subplot about Johnny and his wife struggling to conceive ends up pushed aside as the obvious resolution of Drainpipe's search for his long-lost birth father sits there on the screen like a 100-ft.-tall neon sign of an arrow pointing downward. The performances are solid across the board, with Phil Daniels (Scum, Quadrophenia) giving his best as the passionate yet egotistical Johnny and Jamie Blackley (The Fifth Estate) matching him beat for beat as the aging rock idol's spiritual twin and logical heir. Keith Allen (Trainspotting) and Benson score laughs and sympathy as Johnny's beleaguered band-mates, while Julia Ford (Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980) does what she can with the rather thankless role of the perennial rock star wife. Ford's tender performance shines through even as the script fails her character by having her spend most of the film trying to convince Johnny to give up his dreams of rock stardom only to suddenly stand by her man for some unexplained reason in the third act.
There are few laugh-out loud moments in Vinyl (with the exception of the finale, where Johnny and the other Weapons must elude security while attempting to infiltrate the Single Shots' first live performance), but the humor tends to be more witty and worthy of chuckles than guffaws. The sharp HD cinematography of Benji Bakshi (Big Ass Spider!) lends immediacy and verve to the story and Sugarman often captures the spirited visual humor of Richard Lester's two films with the Beatles. Peters and the Alarm composed the original music score and several new songs and though only the anthemic "Free Rock 'n' Roll" make an impact (due to it being played close to a thousand times during the film) they do a fine job of bridging the modern age of soulless corporate rock with the politically-charged punk of the 1970's and 80's.
The high-definition cinematography looks fantastic on this Blu-ray. Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Vinyl's picture is low on grain and rich with fine details and warm colors. English audio options are offered in both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. The 5.1 is the strongest option if you're looking for the best presentation of the music, but the 2.0 offers the highest and clearest mix for dialogue and other sound elements. Both tracks contain the occasional trace of distortion but they accomplish the task with gusto. English subtitles are also included.
Supplements are limited to a brief behind-the-scenes featurette (6 minutes), the full "Free Rock 'n' Roll" music video from the film (2 minutes), a video still gallery (3 minutes), and the trailer.
Vinyl is neither as funny or profound as the best music comedies, but it's great fun with energetic performances and wonderful songs to help you pass the time in the highest style. Recommended.