I’d like to get something straight up front, because otherwise this may be a confusing review: I really liked HBO’s Vinyl. I think it has a lot of promise and I plan to keep watching it because I think the story arc has a lot of interesting places it can go. That said, the two-hour premiere this week was a little bit of a wild mess.
It’s a shame that as cool and interesting as the pilot was, it will inevitably turn some people away immediately because it’s kind of all over the place. And if you were one of these people you’d be forgiven for that, as the first hour of Vinyl’s initial two hours plays like a Martin Scorsese greatest hits reel — which is not to say that’s a terrible thing. After all, it contains:
-sped-up tracking shots which lead up to a character’s face.
-a tremendous soundtrack.
-awesome 1970’s outfits.
-cameras following people down halls and into offices.
-people on airplanes doing cocaine.
– Italian thugs kneecapping people with baseball bats.
-an exasperated wife at home as her husband is out doing things she’d rather just not know about.
This all sounds like a very awesome thing. The problem with this seemingly-awesome thing is that it all seems kind of mashed together as if Scorsese, producer Mick Jagger and company wanted us to get a taste of all their tricks at one time. Slow down, guys — because I’d like to see Vinyl run for a while. We can be patient, gang; we’re with you.
Vinyl focuses on, presumably, the career and doings of record exec Richie Finestra (the always reliable Bobby Cannavale), head of the fictional American Century label in the early 1970s, as he attempts to bring the company back from the brink of obsolescence. If you’re wondering what kind of universe a show like this exists within, it will please you to discover it lives in one in which actual bands like Led Zeppelin and the New York Dolls exist alongside fake punk outfits like The Naughty Bitz, the latter depicted as so despised that its fans actually attempt to assault them at its own shows.
The cool thing this real/fake trick allows Vinyl is that it lets music purists revel in the clever easter eggs of the show while the characters featured in more major plot points can be dictated by hand of the writers because, of course, those characters and musicians never actually existed. It’s a very neat gimmick, and it adds a tremendously fun aspect to the proceedings.
Cannavale’s Finestra is another in the canonical Scorsese wheelhouse, a wealthy and coked-out philanderer prone to both cinematic drug trips and explosive arguments at home, trying his best to keep up with the “duties of the job” — i.e., partying with rock stars — while keeping his ex-Warholite wife at home with the kids. We all know how this is going to end, because we’ve seen it in a million Scorsese films: the cad will fall into situations which threaten to backslide both himself and his family as his increasingly-restless wife eventually decides to get back into a bad scene of her own. You’ve probably already guessed, then, that Vinyl’s closest Scorsese forebearer would seem to be Casino, with Cannavale and Wilde in the De Niro and Sharon Stone roles.
Filling out the Vinyl cast are Ray Romano as a good-timer Finestra colleague, Juno Temple as an on-the-rise A&R assistant trying to break her way into a bigger office and Ato Essandoh as a slighted former blues signee from Finestra’s past. It would seem to be a strong cast and in true Scorsese form every detail is in place, from intricate concert posters on the wall to the first generation of carphone in Richie’s coupe.
In fact, the worst and most unbelievable thing about the pilot, which I won’t reveal here, is probably, literally, the MOST Scorsese thing that happens in the whole episode — it happens in the last third, revolves around a despicable radio chain owner played pitch perfectly by Andrew “Dice” Clay, and I’m still not entirely sold that it was believable and/or necessary. There’s also a big, eye-popping finale that would seem to be Richie’s catharsis to fuel the series to come, a pivotal moment which is telegraphed from a mile away and still pretty impressive effects for television.
Will Vinyl last? I hope so. With Game of Thrones likely in its back half HBO is going to need a replacement tentpole at some point in the future, and Vinyl certainly is a lot of fun with a lot of directions to explore, especially with grittier punk, disco and new wave inevitably on the future time line. Scorsese has us in his pocket; he always has. Now he just needs to slow down and have fun with it, because there’s nothing better than Scorsese having a blast. As the show shades itself in, it’s easy to see that Vinyl can easily become precisely that — a great director and producer having a ball in a genre he himself helped to invent.