I guess it’s inevitable that a music drama from Martin Scorsese, as channeled through HBO in our age of prestige TV, is going to feel more like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street than like The Last Waltz. But as understandable as it is to see rock and roll hedonism portrayed in an explicit rather than subtle framework, the aesthetic tone of Vinyl feels like a miss. It’s a shame, because there’s so much in the (two-hour) pilot that works: humor, mystery, musical set pieces. If it were a little more restrained… oh, but who are we kidding? It wouldn’t be Scorsese. Of course, heads must be bashed in and guns pulled at regular intervals, while white-on-white ethnic slurs fly back and forth in many a back room. So let’s proceed on our journey back in time, which begins with something of a flash forward.
We start with bigshot “record man” Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), our antihero, who’s on his way to buy an 8-ball, some “sugar,” out in the mean streets of 1970s New York. He gets what he’s looking for, Scorsese-style. So high that he’s out of his mind, his call to a homicide detective — oho! — is interrupted by screams from a nightclub and the haunting siren song of the Youth and their Youth Music. Richie, in his elements, saunters past junkies and blowjobs to hear the New York Dolls playing “Personality Crisis” and wigs out as the ceiling begins to cave in.
How did Richie get here, physically and metaphorically? Will we get a trademark Marty voiceover to explain it? Of course we will, at least to start. As the show proper begins, Richie explains that his label is floundering partly due to “my nose, and everything I put up it.”
Five days before we see him sniffing sugar and following the New York Dolls, Richie’s label, American Century, is this close to a big deal with some Germans who want to buy them out and get them lots of cash. After their meeting, Richie and his crew fly back on a luxury plane and break awkward silences with the immortal line: “Let’s do some coke!” The ladies in their company are discussing Chekhov and Richie is trying to stay away from the drugs (something we already know he’s gonna fail at, in approximately five days.)
Richie is trying to seal the deal with the “Krauts” (their language, not mine) by sealing a deal with Led Zeppelin, but the lithe lead singer of the Zep is not having it: “After the show I’ll be in my doing to those birds what your label is doing to me,” Robert Plant tells Richie backstage at the Garden. Watching Plant croon and wail, Richie realized he’s screwed — the Germans think Zep has signed with him, and Zep does not want to sign with him. At all.
In the intervals between Richie’s wheeling and his dealing, we meet assorted employees further down the chain: Julie Silver (Max Casella) who has a big Chai chain around his neck in case we needed to know he was Jewish, who is in huge hot water thanks to something involving Donnie Osmond and some A&R department kids. We also meet such such savory characters as Zak (Ray Romano) and C. MacKenzie’s Skip Fontaine, two slightly goofy sidekicks who provide much of the slapsticky, good natured, and super-misogynist humor that’ll ensue over the next two hours.
Most compelling of these lot is “sandwich girl” Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) who talks to an aspiring singer played by the lovely James Jagger. His band, The Nasty Bits, are a Sex-Pistols style group whose shows inspire middle fingers, smashed bottles and fisticuffs. Later, after she happily bounces nude on the lead singer for a while (it’s HBO after all), Vine explains her theory of his potential: “They was tryin’ ta kill us,” he says in his British accent. “Yes, because you made them feel something.” The kid has a nose for the business. She then helps him craft his persona: “Not giving a fuck.”
Meanwhile, on his way home from the airport to decompress, Richie stops by a gathering of urban youth (crossed over from Baz Lurhmann’s new show?) and has a gun pulled on him, while someone he recognizes gives him a long glare. The hostility is clearly a harbinger of shit that’s about to get even more messed up. Indeed things get even worse the next day. There’s the Zeppelin fallout, a potential boycott, and spilled bagels on the floor. Even the enterprising Jamie Vine’s pitch about the magnetic energy of the Nasty Bits can’t save the vibe, nor can the conspicuously Jewish neck bling that shows up on several more hairy chests.
Things are not going Richie’s way in more ways than one. His wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) is a former Warhol Factory girl who seems more than a little wistful for her former days and never sees her husband anymore. At Richie’s big birthday blowout, Devon talks to an old friend from her days at the Factory and tries to put on a happy face, and we learn that back in the day, the young couple skipped Woodstock for a weekend in the sack but it was totally worth it (was it, though? Was it?)
In flashbacks, we also see the story of Richie’s rise in the industry — specifically, a narrative that involves Lester Grimes, a black blues singer who goes pop for one big hit, but is abandoned by Richie and left to the mercy of the label’s hired thugs and their baseball bats when he flees to start his own enterprise. This is the guy who glared at Richie in the ‘hood. We can guess that he’ll be back soon.
In between negotiating with the Germans and Led Zeppelin, Richie is also engaged in a bizarre series of interludes with Andrew Dice Clay’s character, Buck Rogers, a money man who owns a lot of radio stations and is pissed off at Donnie Osmond. He is both hilarious and terrifying, offering up such bon mots as: “Does my face resemble an asshole?” and”I put the jukebox on random because that’s how life is.” When things go sour with Buck, however, we’re back in Goodfellas territory, and it’s gruesome. Now that phone call to the homicide detective makes sense. And even a last minute reprieve from the Germans can’t save Richie from the hell, and relapse, his brush with violence triggers.
Indeed, Richie can’t be super pysched about the buyout because he’s an accessory to murder, so, he turns back to his old friend Jack Daniels (or is it Jim Beam?) and we’re back to where we started: the mean streets, the eight ball, The New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis” and the eventual collapse of the entire Mercer Arts Center auditorium right on his well-coiffed 1970s head. In an, um, entirely realistic turn of events, Richie crawls out of the asbestos like a babe from the womb, setting us up for episode two. Rock ‘n’ roll.