HBO’s Vinyl is exactly what you’d expect from a Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and Mick Jagger collaboration. Created by HBO (airing in Ireland on Sky Atlantic), it tells the story of Richie Finestra (Boardwalk Empire’s Bobby Cannavale), a 1970’s record executive trying desperately to revive his label American Century while battling a cocaine addiction, a troubled home-life and, at the end of the pilot, a violent crime hanging over his head. From the opening episode, the show appears not to have much to say in regards to how music has the ability to effect people, aside from conversations where characters deliver lines to musicians like “your one saving grace is that you made (the audience) feel something”. However, what makes the show worth watching is its terrific visuals and some good storytelling centred around people involved in the record business.
The pilot, directed by Scorsese (which clocks in without ads at about 108 minutes), begins with Finestra snorting “sugar” in his car while crazed fans jump in excitement on the way to a New York Dolls gig. As Finestra follows the crowd into the concert and the band plays, he appears to reach euphoria. The opening scene (used heavily in Vinyl’s marketing) works so effectively because it is simply energetic and exciting and although the audience have not been formally introduced to Finestra, we can understand why he has been so moved by the music on a baser, more personal level. It also helps that everything feels so cinematic, whether it be the neon lights, camera pans and tracking shots Scorsese employs.
Following this, Vinyl flashes back in time to the events leading to Finestra’s breakdown. We learn that his label lost Led Zeppelin because the group’s manager (Ian Hart) did not want to work for “Nazis” – referring to the Germans to which Finestra is trying to sell his slowly crumbling label. His A & R department, led by Julie Silver (Max Casella), has lost touch with the evolving music scene – having passed on little known at the time Swedish band Abba. As Finestra and his cronies Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), Scott Leavitt (P.J Byrne) and Skip Fontaine (J.C. McKenzie) attempt to cook the books in order to stay afloat, Finestra becomes implicated in a murder. Meanwhile sandwich and drug supplier for the label Jamie (Juno Temple) has discovered a band with potential – English punk rockers The Nasty Bits.
The pilot sets up multiple story lines (I haven’t even mentioned Finestra’s wife – Devon, played by Olivia Wilde, a former muse for Andy Warhol) and at nearly two hours the episode feels bloated. However, the script is darkly funny and sardonic in the vein of Winter and Scorsese’s previous collaboration The Wolf of Wall Street – particularly the central anti-hero’s narration and his banter with his colleagues. Like Wall Street, Vinyl is unabashedly stylised and excessive and there are iconic moments aplenty such as a radio producer snorting cocaine off a spinning record or a guitarist continuing to play as he crowd surfs. The acting is universally terrific with Cannavale providing the most adrenaline fuelled anti-heroic performance in recent memory. Ray Romano shines as “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” and Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine) makes the most of his guest appearance as a drug-fuelled mess. Although Scorsese may not return to direct future episodes, Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go, One Hour Photo) and Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland) are slated for the next two, implying that the amazing quality of the period detail will not decrease. Hopefully with hour long episodes Vinyl will grow into a more focused show in the vein of Boardwalk Empire.
Verdict: Overblown but gorgeous and filled to the brim with attitude, Vinyl is a feast for the eyes with great potential.