“You’re all hearing this the same way?”
It’s 1973, and the streets of New York are swamped with the morning upchuck of a hungover sexual awakening. Vinyl, brainchild of Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, and Rich Cohen, climbs deep into the world of record production in the skin-submersible of one Richard “Richie” Finestra, protagonist and (briefly) narrator. We meet our hero ripping off his car’s rear-view mirror in his hunt for a surface to snort coke off of, a symbolic destruction of introspection and reflection, and leave him staggering like Frankenstein’s monster from the wreckage of a collapsed building. That collapse sequence is the episode’s flourish and its mission statement, a moment so hugely surreal that it flirts with stupidity. The New York Dolls demolishing a building with the power of rock? How easily could that have gone bad, right?
It doesn’t, though. It’s a searing, sphincter-tightening scene whose only rival is a bloody number in which Richie and promoter/thug Joe Corso beat radio magnate Buck Rogers to death in his own palatial residence. It’s as Goodfellas as Scorseses gets, though the DNA of his seminal mob movie (without which there would be no Sopranos) infuses countless scenes. Men with faces like effaced architecture leaking smoke out of their gash-like mouths? Check. Doo-wop soundtracking mob sitdowns? Check. Bodies manhandled awkwardly out of cars amid inappropriately light-hearted conversations? Check, check, check. Scorsese’s camera swivels and darts throughout it all, delivering lightning-quick changes in perspective as disorienting as they are clear-cut. It accentuates the slur-and-snap pacing of the cutting between the music and business worlds, fundamentally opposite millets under a Sultanate of greed which demands their forcible integration.
Canavale is dynamite as Richie Finestra, a man who looks beat to hell before his first cup of coffee and merely war-weary after it. There’s real range there, too. His slow-burn panic after the gory disaster at Buck’s house, his adoration for his wife, Olivia Wilde’s steely Devon, and his thuggish defiance toward her after he falls off the wagon, and his towering rage at a room full of record agents who aren’t listening to the music they’re hunting. It all works, though he can’t quite perfectly pull off the fresh-faced goon I think they’re shooting for in the flashbacks. Canavale cut his teeth on another Terence Winter show, the criminally underrated Boardwalk Empire, and his turn as the near-feral gangster Gyp Rosetti catapulted the show to a new level of quality. That energy persists, and it has a supporting cast behind it that’s a genuine fucking delight. Ray Romano, impervious to recognition with his Carl Sagan hair and scraggly beard, does pitch-perfect work as Zak Yankovich. P.J. Byrne blunders so cringe-inducingly as Scott Leavitt that it’s physically difficult to look at the screen, and Juno Temple’s hungry-for-more but smartly restrained Jamie Vine promises hidden depths. She seems like the kind of woman who memorizes her co-workers schedules and addresses. Just in case.
The two-hour pilot is sprawling and hypnotic, its extended scenes of musical immersion punctuated by veritable gunshot cuts to the banality of the business underpinning it all. And boy, does it have a lot to say about the business. “Remember this, you jealous prick,” Richie narrates, biting out each word as he defies those who envy his wealth to condemn him. “I earned my right to be hated.” He blusters about working his way up from the bottom, about scrubbing toilets and tending bar. He did it, too, but what he leaves out of his rags to riches story is the black man, Lester Grimes, whose voice and life’s work he stole on his way up the ladder. The historical disenfranchisement of black artists by record companies echoes through the entire pilot. Black singers appear almost exclusively as solitary presences, isolated on camera, limned by light. It’s an approach that exalts even as it commodifies, enfleshing the inextricable paradox at the heart of music production with bravura style. The tension between Finestra and Grimes is like a lead weight in the stomach, awful and impossible to look away from.
There’s a lot to unpack in a show so densely cluttered with pop culture. Indeed, Vinyl overflows with momentary stingers and clips piped in like correctives for hyperactive media addicts. It’s a collage-making approach to engaging pop culture, one bolstered by a never less than organic stream of deep cut references (The Good Rats? Come the hell on) and historical characters like the apoplectic giant of rock management Peter Grant and a Robert Plant so convincing (Zebedee Row nails his catlike, I-don’t-give-a-fuck charisma with eerie accuracy) he gave me goosebumps. It’s a smorgasbord for buffs, both music and movie, and it slams face-first into the world behind the media with an oddball energy that makes the two-hour premiere zip by.
Vinyl pulls off what so many period pieces digging into the 70s come up against and fail: the sense that everyone, pervasively, as a sort of open secret, is high on something. You can practically smell the reefer smoke trapped in the cut berber carpets, and the drawer full of pills Jamie keeps at her desk (her jobs as a drug dealer and an agency assistant appear seamless) is so extensively stocked that it takes a montage to show her filling it up with a new shipment. Coke is passed around as bribe and party favor in equal measure. Heroin, with which Jamie may have some unpleasant experience if her brief exchange with the lead singer of the Nasty Bits is any indication, feels like more of a ghast lurking in the background, but the show’s aura of intoxication and altered consciousness is so strong that no excess feels out of place. It makes the pilot a rabbit hole, and Richie’s Wonderland is the New York Dolls forging a wild, exultant noise-scape in some doomed and nameless building. His rapt look as he stands in the seething crowd is exhaustion, transportation, rebirth, and wreckage all in one.
The collapse is an end, yeah, but it’s also the birth of something new and terrible. Richie, so out of whack he can hardly keep his eyes uncrossed, rises up from the rubble almost like a corpse given vigor and will. Coated in dust he looks like a phantom, and whatever rebirth he’s undergone, it was nothing good. Shit’s about to get weird.