In the beginning and ending of the pilot episode to HBO’s latest great-looking drama Vinyl, coked-up record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is in a crowded club in New York City, 1973. He’s watching famed glam band the New York Dolls play “Personality Crisis,” and it’s awfully convenient that he’s having one of his own. It’s almost as if a famed screenwriter, a rock and roll legend and an iconic film director have set him up to be here as he’s about to embark on a personal quest.
Vinyl‘s pilot then jumps back five days earlier as Finestra’s record label, American Century, about to be bought out by legendary German record label giant PolyGram. Finestra and his partners, right hand man Zak (Ray Ramano) and sales master Skip (J.C. Mackenzie), pitch themselves to PolyGram even though American Century hasn’t had a very successful run as of late (their most pressing client at the moment is Donny Osmond) and had to rely on Payola and inflation of record sales to get by. But American Century has an ace in the hole: Led Zeppelin, whom Richie hopes to sign to PolyGram.
When Richie attends Zeppelin backstage, he gets some bad news from Robert Plant himself: the band doesn’t want to do business after they found out they’re being screwed over loyalties. This setback could destroy the deal with PolyGram and send Richie further into financial trouble, which spells bad news for his cozy Connecticut home with his wife (Olivia Wilde) and kids. On top of that, Richie has to deal with radio big-shot Frank “Buck” Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay) threatening to boycott playing Donny Osmond’s latest album (because Donny Osmond’s albums were big deals in 1973).
Meanwhile, American Century’s NYC office has a rather persistent visitor named Kip Stevens (James Jagger, son of Mick) who won’t leave until the demo tape of his band, the Nasty Bits, gets to the A&R department. The cocky Brit catches the eye of Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), an assistant at the record label who poses as a big shot to get their tape. She and the rest of the label employees are worries that once PolyGram buys out American Century, they’ll all be out of a job. Richie comes in to lambast the rest of his A&R team for not finding new hot acts, to which Jamie pipes up about the Nasty Bits and Richie sees it as an opportunity to move forward.
Jamie goes to see the Nasty Bits live and she is stunned. They play horribly, Kip is an awful singer, the lyrics are a middle finger to the NYC crowd who boo and throw bottles at the band, which makes Kip jump offstage and try to fight everyone in audience. Meanwhile, Richie goes to a whorehouse to meet Buck Rogers and his promotional man Joe (Bo Dieti). Buck asks Richie if he takes him seriously, with his giant sunglasses and walrus-like mustache. Richie does, probably holding back laughs, but knows what he has to do. Jamie and Kip sleep together, but Jamie tells Kip that he and the Nasty Bits were terrible onstage. Jamie thinks Kip needs a persona to make the band stand out, but Kip rejects it all and confesses to only caring about not caring about stuff (and heroin, apparently).
Later on, it’s Richie’s birthday at his waterside Connecticut home. Richie’s wife Devon makes a heartwarming toast and tells the story of how she and Richie skipped out on going to Woodstock because they were too busy enjoying each other in the bedroom. All is calm for a moment in Devon and Richie’s easy living, but Richie gets a call from Joe saying how Buck has snorted incredible amounts of Colombian snow and wants to talk to him. Richie rushes over to the Long Island estate of Buck, who is so high on coke he starts rambling incoherently and waving around a pistol (Boogie Nights, anybody?) trying to “face his fears.” Buck then gets violent and tries to choke out Richie, to which Joe takes one of Buck’s crystal statue awards and cracks it over his head. Buck’s drugs briefly revive him, but Joe cracks him in the skull until half of his head is crushed into a jelly. Shocked and terrified over what just happened, Richie starts freaking out. Joe makes Richie help him get rid of the body and when Richie returns home, his once clean and sober lifestyle is thrown out the window when he gets drunk and starts pantomiming Bo Diddley with his Gretsch guitar no less. Devon catches him and, while also tempted by the vices she once enjoyed, spits it back in Richie’s face and leaves.
All while this is going on, we flash back to 1963 when Richie was nothing more than a bartender. One night, he hears the soul shaking blues of Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) and offers to manage him to kickstart his music career. Richie pitches Lester’s blues to a record exec, but he wants what sells in 1963: clean, friendly and sterile pop music. With that, Lester is now Little Jimmy Little recording flaccid love songs to make money. Richie knows Lester is miserable doing this and promises to buy himself and Lester’s record contract out to start their own label. Unfortunately, the label likes the figures of Little Jimmy Little and won’t release Lester when Richie buys out. Lester still doesn’t want to do the happy-peppy pop tunes, but some brutish thugs hired by the label beat down Lester telling him to play ball or things will get worse.
Despite all of Richie’s world crashing down on him, there’s one bit of good news: By some miracle, the PolyGram deal goes through and American Century is now filthy rich. While everyone else is celebrating, Richie’s crisis has him running out of his own office and back to where we opened with him. While watching the New York Dolls and experiencing some real rock and roll, the club around him starts breaking down and collapsing. The whole building goes with Richie somehow rising from the rubble. Is this Richie revealing himself as Superman or just a cocaine-tinged hallucination? That’s unknown, but what is known is that the man who emerged from the rubble is planning something big.
Yes, this is a HEAVY dose of plot and story for a pilot episode, and a lengthy one at nearly two hours. On the other hand, what else did you expect from something directed by Martin Scorsese? The Oscar-winning director, who co-created the show with Mick Jagger and writer Terrence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street, Boardwalk Empire), directed the pilot episode with surprisingly little flare. Scorsese lets the music and the scenery speak for itself. Scorsese fills scenes with the sounds of Slade and Otis Redding, along with hints of punk with the Nasty Bits and early signs of hip-hop. Everyone’s on coke, wearing flashy suits, talking about everything from the essence of rock and roll to facing your fears. There’s sex, drugs, murder, financial swindling, doo-wop and Bo Diddley. Now with all that thrown in your face, see if you can remember the central storyline? The main problem with the pilot is that it wants to tell the audience so much about New York City life in the 1973 music scene that it forgets to mention why it’s telling you this story. Vinyl gets too high on its own excess and cool atmosphere to stay focused on one central message. Do Scorsese, Jagger and Winter want to reveal the seedy record industry of the early ’70s, the story of a guy trying to conquer his vices, the birth of punk rock or the ego of the era itself? Despite being two hours long and loaded with clever callbacks (Look there’s Zeppelin playing live! And the label is listening to ABBA and think it’s lame!), none of the stories have enough time to leave a significant impact. What story about ’70s rock needs to have a murder subplot?
What the pilot lacks in (or overloads on) story, it makes up for in performances. Cannavale, who scored an Emmy with Scorsese and Winter before on Boardwalk Empire, gets a much more dominant presence in a leading role. His smooth talking but ultimately jaded record executive is like the Italian Don Draper: that cigarette always between his fingers will burn as much as his soul will later on. Wilde is underused in the pilot, but makes her moments count with the baggage she’s carrying as the once wild (or Wilde, get it?) child trapped in the horrors of white collar Connecticut. Jagger makes an impression as well, being the snot-nosed brat singer a la Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Even Ramano and Temple in their brief moments are fun to watch. But the standout here is, of all people, the Dice man himself. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, thick sunglasses and mustache that might as well be walrus tusks, the comedian chews up each piece of scenery and shoots them out of his white-laced nostrils. Dice Clay is everything ’70s rock was at its worst time: bloated, egomaniacal and fueled by narcotics. He might as well be the symbol of the show.
In fact, the problem of Vinyl can be used with a rock and roll touch to it. It wants so hard to be Zeppelin but ends up being as bloated and overstuffed as Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer. Vinyl looks and sounds great, but needs to figure out what its trying to say. Otherwise, it’ll just keeping spinning until the needle falls off.