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Drama TV Review 2016: "Vinyl",Season 1, Ep 1 (Written by Terence Winter, Directed by Martin Scorsese, w/Bobby Cannavale)
The man. The myth. The legend. While those monikers could be attributed to a lot of influential artists and creators, few in pop and historical culture have earned it quite like seminal director Martin Scorsese. With scintillating dramas like “Goodfellas”, “Raging Bull”, “The Color Of Money”, “Mean Streets”, “The King Of Comedy” and documentaries/concert films the likes of which include “No Direction Home”, “Kundun”, and, of course, “The Last Waltz”, his reputation as a vigilant voice in cinema and its preservation go largely unrivaled. It should come as no surprise that he ventured into TV with his first foray, the Emmy winning HBO-produced “Boardwalk Empire” which made an unlikely leading man out of Steve Buscemi and furthered his influence on a new generation of watchers and lovers of sensitively portrayed, flawed men. That series, while falling short of greatness due to several uneven seasons, did boast some of the best production design and rich detail since “Deadwood” and drew on Scorsese’s strengths as a visceral director with a pulse and riveting imagination that never pulled his punches. That brings us to his follow-up, the eagerly anticipated joint production that reunites him with Terence Winter and longtime friend Mick Jagger, the languid and elastic front man for the still-going-strong Rolling Stones called “Vinyl”.
The premiere episode really behaves like a culmination of a lifetime’s worth of experience culled from the three execs on this project, including the director. At two hours, it’s a sprawling, go-for-broke epic introduction to the life of 1960s and 1970s A&R record producer Richie Finestra, played with utmost intensity and sincerity by Bobby Cannavale. Cannavale’s history with Winter and Scorsese can be tracked back to his Award-winning turn as the short fused, antagonistic gangster Gyp Rosetti during Boardwalk’s third season. Finestra and Rosetti couldn’t be more dissimilar, however in term of personality and narrative purpose. Rosetti would be quick to pistol whip or curb stomp anyone who got in his way without any fear of retaliation. Finestra’s origin, conversely, is from humbler beginnings which makes him hesitate to give in to anger and pressure especially to ensure the survival of his start-up record label and those he employs under him. Cannavale’s steely magnetism is always watchable and rarely did I feel a lull in the pace.
What really elevates “Vinyl” to the lofty heights it clearly aspires to in the season opener is a sense of world building. From the opening minutes Finestra is meticulously preparing to snort a line of coke while deliriously giggling at the business card of a lawyer he needs to call. The cutaways of his trembling, anxious fingers and head bucking back when he takes the jolt right through his nose coincide with a stampede of raucous party goers who climb over his car as they make their way to an up and coming grunge show in town to see a very Stones-esque band play. The concert - shot with hot pinks, yellows and plenty of lens flares with 360-degree camera angles with exposed pipes and peeled paint and blaring, feedback-laden raw energy that literally threatens to bring the whole place down, immediately pulls us in to Finestra and the NYC music scene of that time in titillating, unpredictable fashion. Finestra, clearly weary from being up many hours, ambles in to the jam-packed space filled to the brim with every level of debauchery one can think of. As he attentively listens, his eyes glimmer with the rush of acknowledgement that he’s found the next big thing. He smirks in medium close-up as others around him head-bob in ecstasy completely unaware of what they were seeing. Sequences like this, and many others throughout this blockbuster-level first outing are a feast for the soul, ears and mind with an accompanying soundtrack that’s truly to die for.
Thankfully, the premiere also spends a good deal of time on other supporting players and gives the tone of it a comedic and sometimes satirical bend. Ray Romano as fellow producer Zak Yankovich, seemingly crawling out from under a rock after performing in the “Ice Age” animated movies for years is a surprisingly capable dramatic actor who acts as a foil to Finestra. Another standout, in no small part, is Olivia Wilde as Finestra’s wife Devon who is rocked with conflict due to her husband’s frequent cross-country trips and ceaseless meetings. Unfortunately for Wilde and the writing, she is portrayed as the all too typical Scorsese stranded dame, a trope that he has been milking for the better part of three decades. Openly accusing him that their life together just isn’t enough despite keeping up appearances to a point, it’s essentially more of the same and her role has been done more dimensional justice elsewhere. Andrew Dice Clay who audiences are mostly familiar with from his inflammatory stand-up steals his scenes as ‘Buck’ Rogers, a well-off and washed up, dirtied druggy who gave Finestra start-up funds for his label. His performance is perfectly hammy and exaggerated that not only matches the comedian/actor’s real-life outsized personality but lends additional credence to the fact that he should keep acting. Props must be given to Woody Allen for showing him the way in his Tennessee Williams-inspired 2013 film “Blue Jasmine” that also co-starred Cannavale. The newbies are a mixed bag overall but Juno Temple’s sexed-up firebrand of an A&R assistant to Finestra named named Jamie Vine could provide the series with one of the jolts it needs for it to stay afloat. Audiences familiar with her performance as manipulated younger sister Dotty in the X-rated sleeper hit “Killer Joe” directed by “The Exorcist” helmer William Friedkin will no doubt appreciate what she could bring to the table in future episodes. Her young, spritely A&R assistant takes it upon herself to hunt down promising underground bands despite being one of the few women employed at Finestra’s “American Century” label. After a chance meeting with the teenaged lead singer of British punk/alt-rock group The Nasty Bits, she pops in their cassette and is transported which convinces her to see them. When the show goes awry and the audience basically attempts to kill the band for sucking, she plants the idea that they should develop the musical persona of, in her words “not giving a fuck” that is no doubt inspired by the transgressive attitude popularized by The Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, and The Clash, among others.
Truth be told, I can’t name really anything that hits a glaringly false note. The big letdown, though, is that Scorsese isn’t breaking new ground here. More of a remix than a true revolutionary project, he and his creative team are staying within the confines of work they’ve all collectively dreamed up in their individual careers and when they’ve collaborated. If this behemoth of an episode is any indication, the well-trodden themes of excess, corruption, lusts for power and questionable masculinity will, once again, take center stage. I’d be more enthused if I saw flashes of his less significant but no less capable though underappreciated work in “Hugo”, “Shutter Island” and his segment in the anthology film “New York Stories”. It pains me to think that like many of the old masters who succumb to resting on their laurels and reach a state of autopilot, the once infamous for being gritty and stylistically guerilla Queens-born filmmaker may have finally flamed out. Perhaps, this pilot is just a tease and that this venerable artisan hasn’t yet revealed all of his tricks.