HBO’s new rock ‘n’ roll-based drama “Vinyl” is like listening to one of your well-worn records from the ’70s. It sounds familiar, it includes some of your favorite songs, all the beats that you expect to be there are there, however there are some scratches that slightly interfere with the quality, but not enough to trash it.
“Vinyl,” which is the creation of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter, apparently has been kicking around in the brains of the director of “Goodfellas” and the frontman for the Rolling Stones for decades, since Jagger approached Scorsese with the idea of a show about the gritty New York City rock ‘n’ roll scene of the ’70s illustrated in the way that Scorsese’s “Casino” lit the neon lights of Las Vegas from the same era.
Like many people, when I heard about this show, I was excited. “Goodfellas” is basically the Rolling Stones of movies. With the combination of Jagger’s insider knowledge and Scorsese’s talent and obvious affinity for the music, the show seemed like a guaranteed hit. The soundtracks to Scorcese’s films like “Mean Streets,” “Casino,” and “Goodfellas” are integral parts to the storytelling. (Would the scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci’s character Tommy brutally stabs a made man in the neck with a pen be as jarring if the swells of Donovan’s “Atlantis” weren’t crashing all around?)
So far I’ve enjoyed “Vinyl” (spoilers ahead). It’s far from a perfect show. Although, apparently good enough for HBO to renew it for a second season, despite lackluster ratings during its debut. The two-hour premier follows Bobby Cannavale (who taps his emotionally unstable character in Woody Allen’s 2013 film “Blue Jasmine”), as Richie Finestra, the founder of the fictional American Century Record Company.
The first episode sheds some light on Finestra’s backstory (bartender with an ear for music discovers and bonds with a singer with raw soul talent named Lester Grimes, played by Ato Essandoh, breaks into the music business, sells out quickly, leaving Grimes behind and literally beaten down by mobsters). The needle drops us into the current financial turmoil of American Century (it’s referred to as American Cemetery: where artists come to die) and brings us into a boardroom where Finestra and his associates, played by Ray Romano (!), P.J. Bryne and J.C. MacKenzie (both from Scorsese’s 2013 ode to excess “The Wolf of Wall Street”) are in the middle of selling their label to Polygram, and trying to sweeten the deal by signing Led Zeppelin.
In the end, it all collapses. (Though, there was one more collapse coming – more on that in a bit.)
A great cast of secondary characters bring the story to life. An underused Olivia Wilde, who plays Devon Finestra, Richie’s wife and one-time Warhol girl (episode 2 shows flashes between her Warhol days of drugs and sex and her current, bored stay-at-home mom duties, which include cleaning up after her kids and her husband). Mick Jagger’s son James Jagger plays Kip Stevens as the snarling frontman of the punk band The Nasty Bits, who may be able to pump some fresh blood into American Century’s pale roster. Juno Temple portrays Jamie Vine, an American Century secretary trying to work her way up the ladder using her musical intuition, street smarts, sex appeal and her desk full of every drug imaginable. Jamie intercepts a demo tape from The Nasty Bits and plays it for Finestra, who decides there is something there. Max Casella (“The Sopranos”) is Julius “Julie” Silver, the head of A&R at American Century with a head full of music knowledge and sometimes coke. And the great Andrew Dice Clay (who also starred in “Blue Jasmine”) is Buck Rogers, a crazed radio station owner who’s looking for some payola and a party.
Things come to a head with Rogers, who’s in the middle of a weekend-long coke binge with one of Finestra’s guys. Finestra is pulled away from a birthday party, where his associates have gifted him with a vintage blues guitar (which he later throws through the family’s TV as he relapsed into a liquor- then cocaine-fueled frenzy) when Rogers summons him out to his mansion to discuss business. The menacing notes of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” foreshadow that blood that is about to be spilled. One of the most Martin Scorsese moments comes during the scene when Finestra and Rogers fight and Rogers is killed by a thug/promoter associate of Finestra’s (making Richie an accomplice to murder). I wish the Diceman would’ve have stayed around a little longer. He was really one of the better characters. It’s all there: a brutal murder set to a pop song, and later, almost the exact shot-for-shot take on the trunk scene from “Goodfellas.”
Episode 1 ends where it begins, Richie is doing blow in his car. He abandons his car in a coked out frenzy as the sounds of ROCK summon him into a warehouse concert. As a stoned Richie is memorized by the raw power of the ROCK, he doesn’t seem to notice that the entire building is literally crumbling down. The building collapses (this was based on an actual event) but the symbolism felt a bit heavy-handed. Finestra emerges from the rubble a new man. He’s going to continue following his heart (and keep palpitating with cocaine), not sell his company and find more bands with the raw talent to literally destroy buildings.
In last night’s episode, Cannavale’s character continues his coke binge, and the show opens with him doing bumps in the front of an all-night movie screen, as he literally kicks and screams along with Bruce Lee. He then bursts into his boardroom meeting with Polygon (late, of course, and stoned, of course) and screams some pseudo-philosophical babble, the end result of which is that he’s not selling the company. Later, Richie Finestra unleashes his inner Bruce Lee on his associates when they question his authority – directly after breaking the news that they won’t be selling the company. His associates were perfectly happy to cash out, but Finestra decides to keep his integrity, and costs everyone piles of cash in the process.
The insanity continues as Finestra does a few more rails of coke off the top of his office TV while the news shows footage of Watergate, and ropes “Julie” Silver (Casella) into doing some blow, too (literally miming the act of tossing an invisible lasso around Silver’s neck and hauling him in, Silver gives a “twist my arm” look and gets down to it). The greatest cut of the episode occurs when we are transported from the rails of coke in Finestra’s office to a fat white line of powder on his children’s pancakes. His wife Devon (Wilde) decides to take their children out for breakfast, rather than explain the state of their living room that Hurricane Richie blew through the night before.
Another great cut takes place to illustrate Devon and Richie’s backstory. Richie and Devon are hanging out at a Velvet Underground gig. Richie is impressed at the band’s authentic disregard for a mass audience, but even more impressed with Devon’s cool beauty. He follows her into the women’s bathroom and they have sex in front of the bathroom mirror. The next shot shows Devon gazing at her face in the mirror again, but this time as a mom at the diner with her kids. Fazed by the passing of time, Devon jumps in the car, temporarily forgetting her children. Wilde really is great in this show, hopefully she gets to do a little more with her character than bang her husband (mostly in flashbacks) and clean up after him.
Back at the office, Richie Finestra does another line, pulls on his Black Sabbath T-shirt and charges into a meeting with his staff, and essentially fires them all. He then freaks out on a Jethro Tull LP. I guess he realizes flute rock will never have the power to cause a building to crumble. He gives his staff two weeks to bring him some bands with fresh blood. Jaime Vine, the secretary/street pharmacist, comes to Richie’s office to tell him that she wants to be more than a secretary, she wants to help develop The Nasty Bits. Richie makes a reference to “rags-to-riches” novelist Horatio Alger, which Vine hears as “fellatio.” Finestra admit’s he’s thought about it but nothing happens. It’s a pretty funny moment, but also shows Finestra’s willingness to stray from his wife, and that Vine knows she can use her sex appeal to her advantage. Instead she gives him another vial of coke.
The show continues to depict the financial fallout of Finestra’s decision to not sell. Ray Ramono’s character Zak Yankovich is tallying up the price for his daughter’s high-end bat mitzvah and lying to his wife about his broken nose. He tells her it was a car accident instead of telling her about Richie’s spot-on Bruce Lee impression. Later, an obviously distressed Yankovich is sitting in his car, parked in his garage, contemplating an overdose on Valium. The Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride” plays, and Yankovich (subverting the obvious thing – that Scorsese started and almost every show now emulates – of playing a pop song loudly while someone does something drastic) simply puts the pills back in the glove box and smashes out his brake lights to corroborate the lie he told his wife about the car accident. Romano brings an understated delivery to act as a foil to Cannavale’s epic fits of insanity. And apparently, Scorsese wasn’t even aware of Ray Romano before casting him.
The episode ends with Finestra going to the home of Lester Grimes, who in the first episode was savagely beaten, including some punches to his windpipe. Grimes was shown once more when Richie’s made a stop in his limousine to hear some music coming from a project courtyard and quickly understood – it was in his best interest to leave the area. Grimes opens the door and doesn’t say anything, leaving the audience to wonder if he can still sing, and if he’ll be a part of the revamping of American Century and part of Richie’s plan to bring in more authentic artists.
“We’ve got to talk,” says Richie. Grimes silently lets him in.
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