By: Brandon Wilhelm
What an adrenaline rush! The opening to HBO’s new series by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter roars out of the gate to the sounds of the sixties and seventies as Bobby Cannavale commands the screen in a bravura lead performance as Richie Finestra, the head record executive of American Century, a label on the verge of death. Yes, there is sex. Yes, there are drugs. OF FREAKING COURSE THERE’S ROCK N ROLL! Under Scorsese’s firm hand in the two-hour pilot, though, this familiar period is given a new life that pulses through your veins like some wonderful form of harmless heroin. There are even homages to the previous masterworks of the maestro to give film buffs an ample dose of nostalgia to chew upon. I’m talking direct correlations to Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and even a little of The Wolf of Wall Street thrown in for good measure. Can I sing the praises enough?
The short answer is no. What would seem an ungainly two hours is packed to the brim with tense, loaded narrative decorated by immaculate period detail, a truly game supporting cast (the impersonations of legendary rock stars were the greatest surprises—Led Zeppelin even pops in for a few minutes) and music that just begs to haunt your playlist for months on end. It’s not just hard rock that dominates, either. Sensual blues ballads, funky pop hits, and even thrashing punk blitz into your ears and make you want to tear the town apart. James Jagger, son of Mick, who will undoubtedly be our central musical focus throughout the ten-episode run of this debut season, is especially mesmerizing as the nihilistic Kip Stevens, front-runner of the band “The Nasty Bits”. They’re like a hard mix of “The Sex Pistols” and “Iggy Pop and the Stooges” with a little bit of “The Velvet Underground” thrown in for spice.
But why stop there? In addition, we have Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano, Paul-Ben Victor, Max Casella, Ato Essandoh, Juno Temple and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen electrifying the screen one moment at a time. In particular, Wilde is poignant and guarded all at once as Richie’s wife Devon, a former model of Andy Warhol’s, who begins to regret choosing the docile life as a wife and mother over her days of living wild. But, above all, Essandoh is the real treasure here amongst the supporting players. His Lester Grimes is imbued with mystery of ferocity and tragedy of circumstance in an opening arc that really lays out the groundwork for the central relationships going forward. How he came to be where he’s at when the tale begins is especially terrible to behold, and Scorsese never once falters in his depiction of the events leading up to his eventual fate at the hands of Richie’s selfish nature.
Which leads me to save the best for last: Cannavale. I was never a huge fan of his; I often thought he was shoehorned into roles of intimidating villainy. Perhaps it was the deep, gravelly voice? Anyhow, his performance as Richie Finestra destroys any and all preconceived notions I had about the actor. With a “silver tongue and golden ear”, the passionate intensity he brings as the ultimate music fan is usually reserved for roles in Oscar-bait films. The opening sequence that sees him attending a show of “The New York Dolls” still has me up in arms: was it the real life, or was it just fantasy? Another scene in the boardroom in American Century (or, as he calls it, American Cemetery because it’s the place artists go to die) had me laughing nervously—anything anyone said was a fuse to blow his powder keg once he found out his employees passed on ABBA. When Juno Temple’s character Jamie Vine puts forth “The Nasty Bits” as consideration, another chimes in with a sarcastic remark, to which Finestra cuts him down in the most savage, yet humorous manner “You’ve lost speaking privileges!”
So, to put it bluntly, see Vinyl. Some may be turned off by the content—it’s Scorsese, so in addition to the sex, drugs and rock n roll, there is a bit of hard, sobering violence—but don’t let that turn you away from the firestorm of thematic excellence. HBO has a hit on their hands, not a dud, and it is always exciting to catch a show at its beginning when it will snowball into something larger, something grander than what it starts out at. Honestly, I don’t know how they can top themselves; this is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen. For music lovers, there is definitely no better option out there, right now. I’m still humming a few choice tunes as I finish this.