“Vinyl” reflects the legendary names heading its creation. Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter team up post-“Boardwalk Empire” to produce another powerful period piece. The lengthy series premiere (nearly two hours) takes on the ’70s New York music scene with countless depictions of coke-fueled antics, abounding sex and spectacular musical performances. In short, it abides by the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trope of the iconic rock era.
Though these elements are ubiquitous, they don’t define the show superficially. In the very first scene, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale, “Boardwalk Empire”), the once-great record producer around which the show centers, rips off his car’s rearview mirror to line up what we assume is the first coke he’s done in some time. This hook into the story suggests there is more to Richie than the staggering music producer we see at a moment of weakness. And when office secretary Jamie Vine (Juno Temple, “The Dark Knight Rises”) sleeps with aspiring punk musician Kip Stevens (James Jagger, “Mr. Nice”) after a particularly rowdy performance by his band the Nasty Bits, she begins to mold him into a musician she can present to Richie to sign, indicating her ingenuity that exceeds her low rank on the industry totem pole.
The show is rooted in the particularities of an industry overrun with seedy characters and their unwholesome pastimes (including ingesting a variety of drugs), but it doesn’t fall into the trap of glamorizing the lifestyle. Cannavale’s powerful performance as Richie, the music exec with a storied past, illustrates this grounded storytelling. We’re taken back and forth between his humble beginnings in the music industry and his present day disillusionment as a man on the comedown from the pinnacle of his career. The story is told through Richie’s perspective, which he warns from the start may be blurred by his excessive drug use and “bullshit.” His character is written masterfully by Terence Winter and George Mastras and executed poignantly by Cannavale.
After the first scene of Richie’s meltdown in his car, we learn what sparked the series of events leading to his moment of weakness. As Richie and his partners Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano, “Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie, “The Departed”) sit at a conference room table with the German executives buying their floundering record label American Century, Richie’s voiceover briefly explains how he got to where he’s sitting and how he “earned his right to be hated” carrying kegs and cleaning up vomit before starting his own company. More importantly, the previous scene’s weight is made clear when Richie states, “I had a golden ear, silver tongue and brass balls. But the problem became my nose, and everything I put up it.”
Aside from the clever prose and cynicism towards the music business, the show is enhanced with beautifully executed cinematography and a soundtrack carefully curated by show creator Mick Jagger himself. The rapid cutting and various angles of some of the more striking performances create a blur of leather pants, guitar thrashing and headbanging that draw us into the performance as if we were one of the enthralled audience members attending the show ourselves. Scorsese’s style is stamped on to the show with dreamy interludes of well-known musicians performing in Richie’s imagination, reflecting whatever emotions are coursing through him at the same moment. That is the beauty of the show. It bonds together the music and its emotional response in a way that reflects the profound attachment Richie and other music fans have to their experiences with it.
The music of the period is infused into every moment of the show, from playing over the loudspeakers at American Century’s offices to catching Richie’s attention as he passes a nightclub driving down the street. The music’s constant presence in the narrative is as much a part of Richie’s character as it is the show itself. His passion for music is delivered with such sincerity that it makes his efforts to salvage his company by selling it all the more poignant.
Richie’s devotion to his company and the world of music also creates a rift between his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde, “Rush”) and himself, who comes in second to the job he lives and breathes for. Like any middle aged executive with his glory days slipping away behind him, Richie is forced to look back at his past mistakes, including his neglect of his family, with tormented questioning of what’s to come next. This struggle, along with an epic soundtrack, is what we have to look forward to as the series continues.