HBO’s Vinyl Pulses with Earsplitting Energy and Excess

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to own a record label. To me, having my own record company was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the club for an after-school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies.

Okay, so that’s not exactly how it goes, but it’s close enough.

Here’s how it goes this time around…

This is my story, clouded by lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement, and maybe a little bullshit. — Richie Finestra

When it was time to sit down and watch Vinyl, I wondered how long it would be before the first drug scene. I assumed it wouldn’t take very long, but thought perhaps there would be a warm-up period. Twenty seconds after the HBO Original Programming logo hit the screen, Richie Finestra was moments away from scoring an eight ball of coke after crushing a fifth of whiskey behind the wheel of his car. He looked about three breaths from suicide. Clearly, we weren’t wasting any time. And clearly, Scorsese is somewhere nearby. Where’s Leo? Jordan Belfort has to be around the corner crawling around in slow motion after taking strong Quaaludes.

The best and easiest way to describe the new HBO drama, created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter, is to say it’s a little bit of GoodFellas, but with legitimate business. Actually, considering how NOT on the level the music industry was, particularly in the early 1970s, it may as well have been the mob, including the baseball bats and beatings. The show takes place in 1973, with flashbacks to illustrate how Richie became the boss, how his wife went from Andy Warhol’s Factory beatnik to housewife, and how blues singer Lester Grimes became pop sensation Little Jimmy Little, against his will.

Also, everybody says “fuck” a lot, and I mean a LOT. Vinyl has the foulest mouth on HBO since Deadwood. But music ain’t status quo now is it?

Terence Winter, no stranger to the best of HBO, on the staff of The Sopranos and the driving force behind Boardwalk Empire, steps into Vinyl with experience and a sense of purpose. In the pilot alone, I found myself more compelled than at any point in the run of Boardwalk, and also saw much more of Scorsese’s influence as well. If you were to mix Scorsese’s GoodFellas with the excess and debauchery of his adaptation of The Wolf of Wall Street (also another Winter project), you’d find Vinyl somewhere in the middle, with Jagger’s fingerprints all over it.

While it’s certainly not perfect, with a few issues that crept up in the pilot that irked me, this is a pretty great television program. It’s fun to watch, the music is a star all its own, and very early on, the program does its best to create more than just one compelling character.

Therein lies the key, however, because the one superstar character is there from the outset. Many solid television shows have failed or greatly suffered because no role encapsulated and drove everything else. At the risk of hyperbole, allow me to posit that Richie Finestra, largely due to the outstanding performance of Bobby Cannavale, could down the line be the greatest new male role on television since Walter White. Incidentally, Richie reminded me far more of Don Draper, though the comparison is flawed. And, like Don, the more we get of everyone else, the more we’ll appreciate both those people…and also Richie.

Finestra owns American Century Records, and while Richie has a stellar ear for what’s good (for instance, within three bars he recognizes ABBA would be selling out football stadiums), his company is struggling. His A&R reps, led by Julius “Julie” Silver, aren’t signing new acts, and aren’t protecting the artists currently under the ACR umbrella. When your secretary brings an abrasive proto-punk group, the Nasty Bits, to Richie’s attention, it’s the best work he’s seen in months. Jagger’s son, James, plays the lead singer of the band.

American Century is close to signing Led Zeppelin, but things are never that easy, which feels like a good primer on Vinyl itself. This will not be an “easy” show. Richie is trying to stay clean for his family, and doing a good job, but stress takes its toll. Robert Plant gets PISSED at ACR at rate changes and contract alterations, in addition to a potential German Polygram buyout of Finestra’s label. Richie and his wife love one another, but there are problems of both availability and passion.

Here’s where my Don Draper concept emerges. Like Don, Richie is a dynamo in his chosen field. While he makes mistakes and struggles to deal with some of his employees, his ear is impeccable, just as Don’s brain for the perfect tag line or the perfect pitch was second to none. He deals with alcohol issues, and while he isn’t initially cheating on his wife, there’s a definite distance between them and a casual resentment from the wife who thought she would accomplish more in her life. Personal demons cause missteps for both men, and, just as Jon Hamm took over the screen from the opening scene in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Bobby Cannavale owns Vinyl.

When I say “owns,” I mean Bobby Cannavale could win a Best Actor Emmy in his first year. His work in the pilot is immaculate and only superseded by the acting performance in the second episode. He has the facial expressions in silent moments and he can play both the straight side and the insane side of Richie Finestra. The latter becomes more the norm, and you’ll no doubt occasionally wish there was more of a balance. You see multiple facets within the first hour of the Vinyl debut, and you begin to wonder just how much depth is still left to be uncovered. Cannavale’s work is so good, some of the other blemishes are harder to see, but they’re there.

As the first episode rolls along, there were two specific things in my head where I thought internally, “I hope they don’t do this.” In both cases, those events occurred, in addition to a third that I hadn’t predicted. None of these wrecked the episode, but felt overly dramatic and in one occasion, seemingly unnecessary and bordering on out-of-place. Also, within each episode is a sequence that reminded me of the stranger turns in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, moments that almost take you out of the story because of how wonky they are. They’re concept albums, with some working more than others. The important word there, however, is ALMOST, because never was I “not” interested in Vinyl.

The pilot starts a little slow, but it’s welcomed once the episode opens up and goes in several different directions at breakneck speed. It’s not as nasty as it wants to be, which is a criticism, but it grows in both intensity and pace, and when the series as a whole relies and focuses on the music, you just want to crank it and pray the speakers can handle the decibels. Many times, this show shows pure energy and booms with power and mayhem. At others, it’s a little overdone, and a move to simplicity may take it to another level.

Whether it’s in the American Century offices or in a dingy club with shaky dry wall, Vinyl reaches its highest spot on the charts when the music industry is at the forefront. That’s not to suggest the rest of the series isn’t well done, but I enjoy it much more when the figurative records are spinning, even without payola. The styles are varied, which fits the time and enhances the show. You’ll hear recognizable rock and roll, R&B, blues, and punk, among others.

Very few of the artists are fictional, and what’s real adds gravitas to the proceedings. The New York Dolls, in particular, were a major highlight of the pilot, and helped to frame the shift in Richie Finestra’s mindset. DJ Kool Herc was a nice addition as well, showcasing the infancy of hip-hop. I was surprised at just how much of the actual time period existed within the created universe.

Very early in the pilot, it’s clear this is a series that wants to matter to its audience, and one that aims to be HBO’s next giant hit. The debut is tricky, as most will be out on Valentine’s Day and will likely be watching Vinyl on Monday or Tuesday via DVR. The first week numbers won’t be the ones to analyze, but the second and third weeks will be fascinating.

While HBO isn’t a ratings or bust network (just ask The Leftovers), buzz is what counts. Many media colleagues are similar fans of Vinyl’s start, while a few say it falls short of lofty expectations. That’s to be expected. While the show isn’t necessarily doing anything strikingly new, instead mixing portions of other past successes, what it does it does well. For it to be as good as it is with relative immediacy is both welcomed and impressive.

The cast, which outside of Cannavale includes Olivia Wilde as Devon Finestra, Max Casella, Ray Romano (who again shines in a dramatic role), P.J. Byrne, Andrew Dice Clay, and early breakout performances from both Ato Essandoh and Juno Temple, is one that carries weight and true talent. Bobby is unquestionably “the guy,” but those around him all fit the bill, with some able to pull off a little levity when required and others that exist to be constant creators of drama.  

The other “guy” is the music. Whether it’s on stage or part of the soundtrack, it’s as effective a collection of licensed tracks as I’ve experienced since Linklater’s Dazed & Confused, and just as it was and is with that iconic film, the sound is essential to the ride. This show is hellaciously fun to listen to as well as watch.

Like the music industry itself, Vinyl is at times uneven, always take-no-prisoners, occasionally brash, and it pushes limits, but it’s also brimming with artistic freedom and foundationally solid writing. The direction and cinematography are also very effective, with long, sweeping shots, even sometimes circling the actors like a 45 on the spindle. Music flows, and the show understands that the manner in which Vinyl is visually presented is every bit as integral to the aura as what the actors are doing and saying.

It’s a gorgeous, unkempt disaster of a television program, with cymbals clanging and guitars shredding and drums pounding and with its band members snorting coke and downing liquor. It’s loaded with vandalism, vulgarity, sex, drugs, angst, pressure, and yes, blistering rock and roll, cold as ice R&B, and riotous, earsplitting punk rock.   

When I finished the Scorsese-directed pilot, I couldn’t wait to watch the second episode, and luckily HBO provided the press with the first five, so I’ve seen half of the first season. Allen Coulter and others do a nice job with their directorial work in subsequent episodes. You’ll like it on Sunday, possibly even love it, but as Vinyl grows each week, trust me, you’ll see more chart-toppers emanating from the story. It’s a program (or a tune) that gets better with each listen, like many of the best records. And it’s not just about the radio singles.

This one is certainly not a one hit wonder. I’m having a blast watching the show, which arrives with a polish that demands attention, but comes unsealed with a layer of dirt caked all over it, because it’s a nasty world full of deal making, betrayal, and unflinching, unapologetic sin.

I was captivated within minutes, stomping my feet seconds into the New York Dolls live performance of Personality Crisis, and hooked like the series was black tar heroin by the surprising and jarring conclusion to the two-hour pilot. Vinyl gets past the brain and attacks the veins, leaving you wanting more. It may not be for everybody and a two-hour pilot is both rare and difficult to pull off, but in first impression, ambition, scope, and trajectory, we could be looking at a platinum album on Sunday nights.

And Cannavale might be the best front man since, well maybe since Mick Jagger himself, or maybe Mr. Plant.

(Note: I made a conscious decision to write a vague overall review and focus most of my attention on the pilot, so this could serve as a review to both. I will be writing weekly articles on the series beginning with Episode 2 next Sunday night. Vinyl airs Sundays at 9 ET, 8 CT on HBO. The ten episode first season debuts on February 14.)

I’m @GuyNamedJason. I too can hear the future.

Written by Jason Martin

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