The premiere episode of Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s first project together since “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t even an episode. It’s a movie. The two-hour premiere of “Vinyl,” the duo’s hard-cutting, deliberately jarring and louder than loud HBO music drama, features such elaborate filmmaking techniques it’s hard to consider the pilot merely an introduction to what could be a 100-hour series. Scenes are bookended by transitionary shots of various artists crooning rhythmic melodies. Random signifiers of the era pop up to set the mood, like a close-up on a cigarette lighter catching fire followed by hundreds of lights filling a crowded audience. Shaking zooms and quick cuts provide an edge — an attitude — for every inch of the frame, while rock ‘n roll fills the would-be quiet moments and often overwhelms scenes traditionally built to run without such boisterous accompaniment.
And then there are the Martin Scorsese trademarks. Our story begins at the end, flashing back after a lengthy introduction to explain the outrageous events that lead up to a most outrageous conclusion. A number of lengthy tracking shots weave their way into the pilot as Scorsese’s camera swirls around his screaming subjects. Slow motion, foul language and graphic violence all find their way into the events unfolding in the first few hours. Throw in Scorsese’s most inspired playlist since “Shine a Light” and it’s so much Marty you half expect to see Leonardo DiCaprio crawl his way across the floor.
With so much going on visually and audibly, it would be easy to get caught up in comparing the premiere of “Vinyl” to Scorsese’s other cinematic efforts. And while there’s certainly a bit of “Wolf of Wall Street” dancing around in here, this TV show never feels like a movie in the way that most strictly defines narrative cinema. For better and for worse, there’s little substance to the “Vinyl” pilot’s main arc. Instead, there’s just another rich white guy searching for meaning through extremely bad behavior.
For anyone who claimed to be bored by the life and times of Don Draper in “Mad Men” but still loved the hard-drinking office antics of every lady’s favorite Lothario, “Vinyl” might just be for you. In fact, for a show about the wild and dangerous music scene of the 1970s, it sure does spend a lot of time in the office. When you wade through all the bright lights and loud noises, “Vinyl” does, after all, revolve around a very simple premise: how to run a successful record company in the ’70s. And when the story sticks to this idea, it tends to flourish. When it strays, it loses focus. Oddly enough, that means its strongest suit is based in its most fundamental flaw — there’s not a lot at risk in this series, even if everyone involved sure makes it fun to watch.
Meet Richie Finestra. As played — with extraordinary control over each degree of his character’s expansive volatility — by Bobby Cannavale, Richie is the principal shareholder in American Century Records, a former major player in the industry that’s been cruising on safe bets for too long. His partners want to sell and Richie is largely on board, but the music — the music, man, the music! — keeps pulling him in different directions. Past transgressions and new mistakes start to stack up for the smooth-talking Italian-American, and he soon finds himself in personal crisis; a dilemma that may affect his business, his family and his soul.
That’s the sweet spin on it. The nasty, possibly more truthful and certainly more fitting summary (considering “Vinyl’s” edgy spirit) is that Richie is a self-described selfish asshole who’s looking for his next rush. He’s kicked the sauce and cut the blow, so music is his only reprieve from the doldrums of day-to-day life; a day-to-day life that consists of a loving wife and son he seems to think about less and less as the episodes progress. His sins don’t haunt him as much as some might think (paraphrasing more quotes straight from the lion’s mouth), leaving his young protege
Peggy Olson Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) frustrated and his old friends — well, just the one former friend, Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) — fuming.
Yet his wife — the alluring, angry and conflicted Devan, played with powerful poignancy by Olivia Wilde — prodigy (the always magnetic Temple) and former friend (newcomer Essandoh) are far more intriguing — and have far more at stake — than the music junkie misplaced at the story’s core. Don Draper occasionally took a backseat to his supporting cast, but his overall arc was always the most gripping, challenging and aptly dynamic. Richie Finestra’s journey seems to be missing its California, to speak in Matthew Weiner’s terms, or — to be a bit more blunt with the metaphor — his record is lacking the B-side that ties it all together.
If you toss away one undeniably grand but equally ill-fitting plot development (that I will not spoil), his journey is without consequence because he’s chosen as much by the end of the first episode. Richie makes the decision to adhere to one strict principal in his life; to remain in control of his lifelong passion; to let the music play him. And in doing so, he’s all too willing to go down with the ship. In “Mad Men,” the audience’s greatest fear for Don was suicide (or a meaningless death, to be a little more bold). In “Vinyl,” it’s losing a business. Despite what the latter might cause Richie to do, the stakes are too low for a drama of this regard.
But what about the story of a wife and mother torn between her love for her family and the patriarchal restrictions of her role in the world? Or an ambitious music lover who cajoles her way into upper management’s good graces while taking a rough-at-the-edges rock band under her wing (and into her bed)? And what about a black blues guitarist whose dream is unjustly ripped from him only to be dangled in front of his face years later? Don’t those sound like good stories? They elevate Richie’s own journey, at times, but the show itself never reaches its own lofty ambitions because the main character is tying it down. While “Vinyl” certainly cruises to its own beat just fine — a production this fine should be cherished no matter the medium — all that effort sure could have made one of these new numbers really pop, instead of just polishing an old record that’s just about spun out.