Plot be damned, Vinyl thrives in the noise of concert halls and recording studios
Whatever you imagined HBO’s latest prestige drama to be, Vinyl undoubtedly confounds your expectations. Less plot-driven than its stately predecessor Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl is literally all about celebrating music. All about celebrating clothes. All about celebrating drugs. All about celebrating the filth, grime, and graffiti of New York City. Director Martin Scorsese, co-creator Mick Jagger, and writer Terence Winter have collaborated to fashion Vinyl into a kaleidoscopic, impressionistic ode to the fluid music scene of the 1970s. Your enjoyment of the show depends entirely on how much you appreciate the music. But five minutes into it, and it’s unmistakably a Martin Scorsese picture.
Vinyl at its core is a character study about Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire, Blue Jasmine). Everyone around him swirls in a haze of drugs, booze and rock-n’-roll, but Richie remains relatively and refreshingly clean, save a stress-induced plummet in the premiere’s first five minutes. He’s even staying faithful to his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde, very promising), when sex is little more than a handshake after business. His narrative through Vinyl‘s pilot is to negotiate a deal for his record company, American Century, with a consortium of German buyers. His journey to close weaves him through a series of colorful secondary characters both fictitious and reality-based, the most memorable of whom is confidant Zak Yankovich (a near-unrecognizable but transformative Ray Romano). The exploration of Richie’s life is a dizzying affair, at times difficult to pinpoint given the relative lack of linear narrative.
Thanks to Scorsese’s involvement and passion for the material, the entire production is gonzo from the start. The concert sequences are brilliantly filmed, echoing Scorsese’s frequent work in the concert documentaries. They all have a gritty feel and smoky haze about them. The sweat on the actors’ bodies seems well earned. Vinyl, if nothing else, feels incredibly authentic, taking at times a documentary approach to the material. But this is a Scorsese film, and it has all the quick edits / jolts we’ve become accustomed to from something like Goodfellas. It’s practically useless to discuss. It has to be seen. It has to be felt. It has to be lived to fully appreciate.
That said, not all is perfect. There are two scenes of brutal violence – one ending in a gruesome death – that felt incredibly out of place. It’s as if exploring the music wasn’t enough. The creative team had to tack on an unnecessary murder to add a layer of plot. And there is a subplot involving Mick Jagger’s son, James, as a rising punk rock star. These scenes, shared with Juno Temple (Far from the Madding Crowd) as an ambitious office assistant, feel as cliched as the concert scenes felt alive. There’s one particularly painful post-sex exchange that included this charming bit of dialogue: “So, what do you give a fuck about?” “Fucking. Fighting. Nothing.” Given Jagger’s presence, I’m terrified this subplot has the potential to take down the strength of the overall production. But then we’re given scenes of such raw power and beauty – particularly a late-breaking sequence between a drunk Richie and furious Devon – that the off-key moments hardly matter.
Come into Vinyl with an open mind and heart for the music, and you will not leave disappointed. Like most great Scorsese pictures, Vinyl is often messy, often too-long, and nearly always brilliant in its habitation of its subject matter. By the 2-hour pilot’s end, you’ll know you’ve seen something special thanks to Scorsese’s powerhouse direction. When the pure power of a rock show in a dilapidated building literally brings the building crashing down on the concert-goers, you’ll know you’ve seen something insane.