Vinyl Gets Off to a Rockin’ Start

HBO
HBO

Vinyl closed its series premiere with the New York Dolls literally bringing down the house atop record executive protagonist Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), culminating in his rebirth out of the wreckage of the collapsed building—all thanks to the onslaught of punk rock.

Vinyl is the opposite of subtle but hey, it’s Scorsese—doesn’t have to be subtle if it doesn’t want to be.

Set in 1973 New York, the new HBO series was created by Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, Rich Cohen, and Mick Jagger. Yep, Mick Jagger. The pilot is directed by Scorsese, and written by Winter with George Mastras (also a writer on Breaking Bad). All this background goes to say: this group of people clearly knows what the hell they’re doing.

Mick Jagger’s participation, one would hope, captures the essence of 1970’s NYC rock & roll, the feel of it. The show does succeed, to a degree, in capturing that essence, but it is far more interesting when it zooms in on the nuances of the individual characters rather than trying to make a larger statement about music. In the latter case, there’s already been so much said about the “nature” of music that it’s hard to escape the “been there, done that” feeling.

Bobby Cannavale is spectacular in the lead role, playing Finestra with a tormented, complex, swaggering confidence. Richie himself is reminiscent of other ultra-talented, savant-like, intuitive, flawed male protagonists of yore, like Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. There are hints dropped like anvils about his hard-partying earlier days—his beautiful wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) harshly criticizes him when he falls face-first down a bottle—but sandwiched between his coked-up opening and closing scenes, Richie is clean. He turns down coke on the company’s private jet en route back from a meeting with PolyGram, to the bemusement of his partners Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano, a scene-stealer) and Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie).

HBO
HBO

On his way to mega-success, the pilot weaves together a present day storyline and numerous flashbacks to show the beginnings of Richie’s success in the industry. Tending bar, he spots a young, talented Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) and gets him signed—only to leave him behind, betraying him, once he gets the chance to get out on his own and create his own label. Richie’s betrayal directly leads to Lester losing his ability to sing, and the stare-down between the two men in present day, when Richie happens upon Lester when investigating where some music is coming from, is one of the more intriguing moments of the pilot. I’m really interested to see where the series goes with Richie and Lester’s relationship following Richie’s “rebirth” at the hands of punk rock, since Lester is listed as a main character and the history between the two is so rich.

Richie knows music like Don Draper knows ad sales. He can see into the future. He knows that ABBA will sell when the rest of the A&R kids brush them off. Except for Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) of course, who, in shades of Peggy Olson (the Mad Men similarities keep on rolling), exhibits a go-getter, determined attitude to make it in the music business. When Jamie goes to see The Nasty Bits, a British band led by Kip Stevens (James Jagger, son of Mick), her eyes go wide and hungry at the ensuing violent chaos that the band has inspired in the crowd. She, like Riche, has seen the future of music—punk rock. She realizes that technical skill is the least important aspect of this band’s success—she tells heroin-shooting Kip he needs a persona.

In many ways, Jamie’s journey is already more interesting than Richie’s. It’s uphill, not downhill, for her. The pilot sets them up at opposite ends of the spectrum—Richie has already achieved the height of success and is at the tail end of his reign: American Century is near bankruptcy, and the only way out for them is to sell the company to the German company PolyGram.

Jamie, on the other hand, with her drawer of every conceivable drug under the sun, is at the very bottom. She’s a lowly assistant, the “sandwich girl.” Based on this era and how one tends to get ahead in the music business, it’s unlikely that Jamie’s rise will much mirror Peggy’s at all.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this massive pilot (at two hours long–it’s a beast) is the way it manages to sow seeds of a storyline for nearly every major character.

HBO
HBO

Devon, Richie’s wife, is approached by her old friend Ingrid at Richie’s birthday party. Ingrid reminds her of their earlier days hanging around with Andy Warhol. At the news that Andy asked after her, Devon’s eyes briefly flash, suggesting that she’s not quite as content and comfortable with her new family life as she’s led Richie (and everyone else) to believe. Her later confrontation with a wasted Richie, when she taunts him over their new, family-oriented life not being enough for him and holds the bottle to her own lips before spitting it in his face, is cast in a totally different light thanks to that earlier Devon-Ingrid moment. Where Devon might have been a stock-figure, the wife left behind, she’s imbued with more complexity than that, to the show’s credit.

Among the stellar performances, phenomenal direction, and largely strong writing, there’s one piece of the puzzle that sticks out in a bad way. That’s the shoe-horning in of the murder plot.

There was, to be frank, nothing at all inventive about the way this was done. Richie leaves his birthday party to deal with Frank “Buck” Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay, another scene-stealer), a radio station owner threatening to boycott all of American Century’s artists thanks to a snub by one of their artists, Donnie Osmond. Buck, who’s been awake and on drugs since two days prior when he’d seen Richie last, loses it and attacks Richie. Richie and Frank’s associate end up killing Frank in self-defense and—surprise!—dumping the body and not going to the police to confess to the self-defense killing.

This was disappointing for a number of reasons. For one, Andrew Dice Clay was phenomenal and mesmerizing in this role, and I’d have liked to see him pop up again. For another, it was illogical–the killing was clearly in self-defense, and we’re not led to believe that Richie has had any negative dealings with cops that would color his judgment.

Moreover, the whole thing just feels inescapably like a plot device (and not a good one at that). The showrunners needed some event to catapult Richie towards rock bottom, to get him on drugs again, to lead him into the New York Dolls’ show at Mercer, to get him beneath the crumbled remains of the building, in order to be propelled up and out of the wreckage to start anew. They chose a self-defense murder, and the specter of that stupid crime is going to haunt the show going forward, detracting from the far more interesting human dynamics between these complicated, mesmerizing characters. It was a poor storytelling choice, so here’s hoping that they do something unique with it or drop it, fast.

Other rockin’ thoughts:

  • Martin Scorsese loves his voiceovers, but thankfully, aside from its appearance at the beginning, it was dropped. Let’s hope it stays that way.
  • It’s hard for actors to pull of playing real-life celebrities and not have it feel hokey. The brief appearance of “Robert Plant” (Led Zeppelin’s lead singer) just felt totally wrong. Not a fan of that moment.
  • This may be betraying my youth, but I was totally flabbergasted to see a rotary phone in Richie’s car. That was a thing?
  • The coke-faces that Richie pulls are a little much.
  • The surreal musical interludes are fantastically done and surprisingly unobtrusive, particularly the Bo Diddley appearance.

Did you check out Vinyl? What did you think of the premiere? Sound off in the comments below!

Vinyl airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Canada.