Created by Rich Cohen, Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter, Vinyl is the latest drama from HBO with a core that belts out a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, so if you’re not excited by the fervent throws of that era, then it may take you longer to put the metaphorical needle into the groove but if you’ve full-hearted love for music and film, then expect a very special experience.
This 2-hour opener is sold as a pilot episode, and could be a film within itself, which only just begins to explore the intoxicating and electrifying world of a hugely changing music and cultural scene in 1970s. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the small screen is an ample recreation stage as we focus on the Bobby Cannavale‘s Richie Finestra, the owner of American Century Records, whose love for music will take him all the way from his bar job to the very top. However when we first see him, things aren’t exactly going well as he’s prowling the back streets of New York in his car, buying drugs and presumptively on a downward spiral. As he sits there high and about to call the Police, for reasons unknown at this point, he’s dragged back into the reality as, outside, girls clamber over his car, running towards a crumbling building with loud music pouring out. His desperation bubble is temporarily shattered and Richie heads off to follow the crowd and into a sweaty cauldron of music and escapism. It’s one hell of a tempting beginning.
From this point, we live through flashbacks and the events that have led up to this instant. From huge record deals possibly going wrong, to Andrew Dice Clay’s eccentric and somewhat sociopathic radio station owner, so much ensues and it’s gratifying to watch. So what about the cast? Leading the way is Bobby Cannavale with a sublime performance that shows us again that he’s hugely underrated; this might well be the step up to wider, justified recognition. As the story flips between particular moments in his life, you get to witness every level from his peak powers to the utter opposite, from the first act (Ato Essandoh’s Lester Grimes, the first signing of Richie who plays a piece of the puzzle) to the alleged glory days. We’re easily intoxicated by his dedication and often feel a part of his world, however unpredictable. Alongside him is Ray Romano and J.C. MacKenzie, both giving solid performances but more of a distant sleeve note to Cannavale at this point, despite having some influence in his decisions.
Also standing out is Olivia Wilde as Bobby’s wife Devon, who’s definitely not just for show. Her character emulates Richie as she tries to be the gravity he’s desperately trying to cling onto. Wilde fits this era comfortably, her natural presence coupled with her personal success, as well as looking after their children, is the stability Richie desperately craves but may be struggling to keep hold of. We’ll learn who’s in charge as the story progresses.
Similarly Juno Temple is very capable and an actor who has chosen very specific roles over recent years with the likes of Atonement, Killer Joe, The Dark Knight Rises, Horns and more, she’s become a character actress that impresses me every time. She plays a young A&R woman at the label who has a better ear for new music than the fellow aging, more anxious colleagues.
Thankfully they don’t hold much back in Vinyl, from drug taking, to murder, to sexual encounters, everything is on show and why wouldn’t it be in 1970s New York? As a stand-alone, Vinyl is a sublime circle of story in both narrative and intelligent juxtaposition of camera work from beginning to end as it starts to stretch out the tentacles of a wider world. The co-starring characters independently give us an inkling of their capabilities, with a look towards something greater to discover. This opening EP of an episode is spellbinding, charismatic introduction to 1973, one year in a decade where music changed forever. Vinyl is huge achievement for the small screen and testament to smart scripting, strong direction and a captivating cast all backed by one hell of a soundtrack.
HBO’s Vinyl: Pilot episode. Reviewed by Dan Bullock, February 2016.