Vinyl, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”
Written by Terence Winter and George Mastras
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO
It seemed inevitable that Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger would work together at some point. After all, The Rolling Stones have created the essential music of Scorsese’s life, and his films would be profoundly different works without “Gimme Shelter” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Scorsese did film the band for Shine a Light, but Vinyl, which made its debut this Sunday on HBO, is his true collaboration with Jagger.
Scorsese’s previous television project, Boardwalk Empire, had an uneven record. It also started with a Scorsese-directed pilot that would dictate the show’s style, but he never directed another episode and his influence would wane in future seasons. The show’s critical standing was resuscitated by the end of its run, but it came to feel strangely inert. Scorsese has already said that he plans to directed more episodes in the future, which certainly augurs well for the series. No one can evoke the grittiness of New York City in the 1970s like Scorsese. In one scene early in the episode, Bobby Cannavale stares out the window and the dirty, crowded street looks like leftover footage from Taxi Driver. Jagger is also an expert on the debauched hedonism of rock music. Jagger has stated that he was interested in doing a film from inside the music business in the style of Scorsese’s Casino (one of his underrated masterpieces). The film was ultimately unwieldy and morphed into a television show.
Vinyl starts Cannavale as Richie Finestra, the head of the record label American Century, which is currently suffering from a subpar roster as well as rebellious acts like Led Zeppelin and Donny Osmond (!). The episode opens with Richie sitting in his car, filled to the gills with booze and cocaine. He looks like a sweaty mess and it’s amazing that he has any control over basic bodily functions. Richie pulls out a card for a homicide detective, foreshadowing a shocking event late in the episode. In his drug addled state, he follows a simian pack of rowdy youngsters into a theater as the New York Dolls are playing “Personality Crisis.” It’s a nearly religious moment for Richie; as the other fans are jumping and gyrating his head bobs lightly with ecstasy.
The episode uses a flashback structure, going back a few days to negotiations with Dutch recording company PolyGram. Richie is joined by Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), head of payola and other illegal payoffs, and Skip Fontaine (J. C. MacKenzie), head of sales. The negotiations are complicated by American Century’s shady business practices, as well as a deal with Led Zeppelin that hangs on the precipice. Richie also has to try to placate a drug-addled radio station owner, Frank “Buck” Rogers (played by an unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay).
As Richie tries to save his label, the episode periodically flashes further into the past, to Richie’s past as a manager for early rock ‘n’ roll acts. One act in particular, Lester Grimes, inspires Richie. Grimes is a blues singer, but in order to get a contract, he needs to adopt a stage name (the laughable Little Jimmy Little) and make pop hits, and then he just might be allowed to record the blues music he excels at. It’s a promise built on lies. Lester is too naïve to discount them, and Richie is too naïve to think that’s a problem. When it comes time to stand up for what he believes in, Richie opts for a bag of cash and leaves Grimes to a new manager who will suck him dry.
Back in the ‘70s, Richie’s negotiations with Buck Rogers go nowhere. Rogers is belligerent and high as a kite, with a revolver he doesn’t mind firing off. One thing leads to another, and Rogers ends up on the floor with his face caved in. It’s a shocking act of violence, one that seems out of place based on what we’ve seen so far, but right in line with Scorsese’s oeuvre. When Richie and Joe Corso (Bo Dietl) remove the body, Scorsese is clearly alluding to the bloody body disposal scene in Goodfellas. Richie spirals into a guilty vortex of drugs and alcohol, until we’re back with him at the episode’s opening, just as the New York Dolls remind him of life’s pleasures. Unfortunately, the walls and lighting rigs of the aging theater are starting to crumble. As the crowd bounces with the music, cracks spread across the hall. The lights and the chandelier come crashing down and the whole building follows suit, engulfing Richie. But miraculously he survives, and a dust-covered Richie walks out, renewed by his experience.
There are a lot of moving parts in the two-hour series premiere. Richie’s wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) doesn’t have much to do during the episode. Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), an assistant at American Century, courts a proto-punk band named Nasty Bits (playing a song by forgotten act Jack Ruby). It looks like Nasty Bits will have a more significant role in future episodes, but this is undoubtedly a male-centered show. Of course, part of the point is that women are undervalued in this male-dominated industry. But it will get boring pretty fast if all we ever see of the female characters is them being stepped on by their male colleagues. Mad Men had to deal with this exact issue, and it managed to find a way to make its female characters grow and develop with the show, without ever creating a fantasy version of the 1960s where women were also treated as the equals of men.
Showrunner and co-creator Terence Winter will undoubtedly find a way to pare down some of the shows storylines, especially after its world-building premiere. Winter, previously wrote Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, created Boardwalk Empire, and worked on The Sopranos, so his creative bona fides are not in doubt. The premier of Vinyl is dizzyingly busy, but it also pulsates with electricity. Its bursts of violence are shocking, but a welcome respite from the music business intrigues. In the wake of Mad Men, Vinyl should feel free to move beyond just being a show about terrible men doing a job until it sucks their souls dry. It also remains to be seen how the show will handle its soundtrack. There were some great songs in this episode, but at times the wall-to-wall music started to seem rather bland. Some of that may be intentional (there was a lot of terrible music created in the ’70s), but key will be to focus on important pieces of music rather than filling every moment of silence with some variation of glam rock. The ‘70s were a time when rock was simultaneously decaying and metamorphosing into many fascinating subgenres. If there’s any show that can contain all of these contradictions, it just might be Vinyl.