“So, this is my story, clouded by lost brain cells, self aggrandizement and maybe a little bullshit, but how could it not be in this fucking life?”
With these words Bobby Cannavale, as self-proclaimed Record Man Richie Finestra, invites us into his world of 70s drugs, rock n roll excess, black comedy and existential horror. It is funny and vulgar and wildly over the top. I didn’t always know where it was going or why, but it was never less than a thrilling ride. It was also, occasionally, shockingly violent, even by Scorsese standards and perhaps more so than anything he’s done since the killing of Joe Pesci’s character in Casino.
It is so unlike any pilot I can think of, that I’m not even sure that’s what it is. Running at two-hours uninterrupted it feels more like a feature than a pilot, and has the scale and scope of almost any film in the Scorsese cannon. It is littered with visual and thematic references to the director’s great classics before it, with some POV shots of driving through the streets of New York that look like they were lifted right out of Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead. In an era where the distinction between “television” and “cinema” is beyond blurred, this is simply put, a Scorsese picture for Scorsese fans. A fitting Valentine.
It is Scorsese’ second pilot for an HBO series, and much like his previous work on Boardwalk Empire, it rewrites the rules for what we should expect of a pilot. Working with his Wolf of Wall Street cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, this is the most glorious use of colour I’ve ever seen on television. Bold, vibrant, and expressive. The camera is subjective, the framing intelligent and dynamic. In fact, on every technical level this is a monumental achievement. Scorsese has said he will be taking a more hands on approach to this show than he did with Boardwalk. It remains to be seen, however, if the series can maintain his kinetic filmmaking style over the episodes he is not directing. As much as I loved Boardwalk Empire, I don’t think it ever lived up to its pilot.
It should be said that Bobby Cannavale deserves this show. He shows up in every part he plays, the way that John Turturro used to show up for a part in the 90s. A skilled supporting actor, he shines in a leading role here as a man in the same kind of living hell as Nicolas Cage’s grief mop paramedic in Bringing Out The Dead, even if it isn’t always clear exactly what his existential dread is all about. If it was, of course, I suppose we wouldn’t need to keep watching.
The story concerns Richie’s efforts to sell his record company, intercut with flashbacks to a deal he made in the past, that built his fortune but forfeited his soul. It may turn out to be the familiar rise-fall-redemption tale that Scorsese is a master of, but after years of Tony Sopranos, Walt Whites and Don Drapers, I’m weary of this particular brand of anti-hero.
I think I’d much rather see a whole show dedicated to Mick Jagger’s son James as the would-be punk rock star character and Juno Temple as the office assistant/drug dealer who first sees potential in him before any one else. Of course, I have no idea where the show is going, and all of these characters may get their chance to shine before the season runs its course.
The intersection of organized crime and the music industry is interesting. It’s a subject briefly considered on screen previously in films like The Godfather, with its Jonny Ola character a thinly veiled Frank Sinatra, whose real life connections to organized crime are well documented, and in shows like The Sopranos, from which this series is an obvious descendent (when Bobby shot that rapper in the ass to add to the rapper’s street cred is just one example). That Scorsese’s depiction of the underworld has such vitality is no surprise, but that the rock n roll is somewhat lackluster is disappointing given the collaboration here with Mick Jagger as co-creator and executive producer. l think the music component of the series, overall, could use a lot more Mick Jagger. Nothing rises to the level of soundtrack glory that he and Scorsese have been delivering like a hypodermic needle spiked into the vein of cinema itself since “Tell Me” and “Jumping Jack Flash” burned up the soundtrack on Mean Streets.
As in Terrence Winter’s previous script for Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street, the writing searches for the profound in the profane, and occasionally confuses one for the other (I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which category Ray Romano’s “Jerk off first, Chekov later” line falls into). I miss the journalistic approach of Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino) and the depth of Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out The Dead), the writers who have probably given Scorsese his greatest scripts. But it is unfair to judge Vinyl against those films with only one episode aired. That I feel compelled to compare them anyway says much more in the pilot’s favour than it does against it.
Ultimately this is just the first chapter. I realize Netflix has spoiled me. I want to devour all of this show at once. But there is no way I’m not coming back for the second episode, and perhaps that’s all we should be expecting of a pilot, to make us want more, especially one so rich and strange and beautiful. Many of the visuals have lingered in my mind for days. I can’t think of another show that looks this good. At one point Richie says, “let me just shut up, drop the needle, and crank up the volume!” Perhaps that’s good advice even for this reviewer.