‘Vinyl’ Series Premiere Review: When the Walls Come Crumbling Down

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The latest TV venture for the legendary writer/director/producer Martin Scorsese, “Vinyl” reteams him with co-producer/writer Terence Winter, also of “The Sopranos” and “Wolf of Wall Street” fame, for his second series for HBO, after the well-received “Boardwalk Empire.” Here, the two team up with newcomer and creator Rich Cohen and another legendary figure, Rolling Stones front-man Mick Jagger, who spent decades developing the project before connecting with Scorsese and Winter to make it a reality.

Jagger allegedly first pitched the idea to Scorsese back in the mid-90’s before Cohen and Jagger came up with a more fully-formed pitch and script which Scorsese felt would lend itself better to a series rather than the intended film. Fast forward to now, and that series is finally a reality. But was it worth all the time and effort? Happily, the answer is a resounding yes.

The feature-length pilot, directed by Scorsese himself, is arguably the best thing he’s done in ages, since at least “The Departed,” IMHO. (If you leave out that film, in fact, I’d say it was the best thing he’s done since “Casino” as well.) That’s not to say he hasn’t done some interesting work in between those landmark films, just to say how genuinely great this one is. “Wolf,” “Hugo” and “The Aviator” all have their moments of greatness, and even lesser works like “Gangs of New York” and “Shutter Island” are at least watchable, if not in the same league as his undeniable classics, such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.”

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But there’s something that happens when a true artist like him engages with the material, as he does with “Vinyl.” It gives the project a vitality that other projects are missing, a sort of electrical charge that marks their best work when you see it. There’s a scene near the end of “Vinyl” where the lead character, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale, another “Boardwalk Empire” vet) hears the New York Dolls play for the first time live and the walls literally come crumbling down around him.

Maybe it’s a bit hyperbolic in that it’s so over the top, but the metaphor absolutely holds- real, true art has the ability to move mountains, change the world and rock you to your very foundations. Thinking back on it, I thought of similar experiences I’d had over the course of my life: hearing Bowie for the first time when I felt alone and unwanted; seeing Nirvana play in a dingy club at an all-ages show and reveling in the moment when the band destroyed their instruments, The Who-style; moshing within an inch of my life at the likes of Metallica and Anthrax shows; crowd-surfing for what seemed like an eternity at a Smashing Pumpkins gig; quite literally almost losing my life at a Public Enemy show where I was one of the only white faces in the crowd and then again at a Pixies show, when, just as we see here, the plaster started coming down from the ceiling and they had to stop the show to cordon off the area, moving us from harm’s way to the front of the coliseum and relative safety.

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I got news for you, too: even knowing now how much potential danger I might have been in had some of those events gone truly south, I wouldn’t change those experiences for the world. Because that’s what real art does to you- it inherently changes you whether you realize at the time or not. In “Vinyl” it happens when Richie is at his absolute lowest point- he’s been involved in a grisly murder (the victim in question being Andrew “Dice” Clay at his douchiest- which is saying something), fallen off the wagon and endangered his marriage and family in the process.

And yet, like a beacon in the night, the prospect of a new experience calls to him in the form of that NYD show, like a siren song, and damned if it doesn’t change his life in that moment. As a record executive, it’s that occurrence that everyone hopes to have but rarely does: the witnessing of the birth of not just a star, but a movement- in this case, the burgeoning punk rock movement.

Richie has a similar moment with the also then still burgeoning hip-hop movement, as he’s driving along the streets and hears something new, something different, and he’s compelled to stop and check it out- but in this case, like someone denied entry to the storied Studio 54, he’s locked out of the scene, and deservedly so.

As we see in flashbacks- technically the entire first episode is made up of them, pivoting on that opening and closing scene of Richie directly before and after that NYD gig- Richie once had a shot at claiming a bona fide star, and blew it, all in the service of furthering his own career. We see him in his pre-executive days, meeting and wooing his first client as a manager, Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh, “Elementary”), an electric bluesman that could have been the next Jimi Hendrix, only to blow it later on when the prospect of starting his own label overrode the desire to retain Grimes as a client.

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The decision comes back to haunt the both of them, but it really hits Grimes the hardest- literally, when he refuses to record for his record label unless they release him from his contract and he’s beaten within an inch of his life by the mobster types, who, at one point, in a cringe-worthy moment that ranks with Scorsese’s best such scenes, one of the thugs crushes his windpipe in the process, thus putting an end to his singing career before it’s really begun.

It’s a devastating moment, and it’s one you really feel as a viewer, reminding me of a similar one in Spike Lee’s underrated “Mo Better Blues,” in which Denzel Washington’s character suffers the same fate, albeit as a result of an owned debt in that case. As a direct result of that, when destiny calls Richie to potentially sink his teeth into the nascent hip-hop scene, Lester quite understandably shuts him down before he can, as if to say- you had your chance at something special before, and you screwed it up, and guess what? Payback’s a bitch- and so is karma.

It remains to be seen whether karma is done with Richie and he’ll really rebound in life with the punk thing, but it will interesting to see him try. After all, he’s still got that accessory to murder charge potentially looming over his head, should the cops connect him to the crime, and his marriage and family still lie very much in the balance, not to mention his failing business, which is hemorrhaging money. True, a deal with a group of Dutch-Germans will provide a much-needed Band-Aid to the latter in the meantime, but if Richie doesn’t do something big and fast, that won’t help much in the long run. As they say in the biz, you’re only as good as your last hit.

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This show has hit all over it, between an arguably never-better Cannavale, in the role of a lifetime, to an ace supporting cast that includes the delectable Olivia Wilde (“House”), born to play a 70’s MILF-type, as Richie’s wife, Devon, a former Factory Girl (as in Andy Warhol’s famed collective of artists, actors, musicians and general hangers-on).

There’s also the perfectly cast Juno Temple, sexy as ever, as a would-be A&R executive, Jamie, looking for that big break and next big thing, in order to further her career from her current status as a glorified secretary/drug dealer. As her potential big find, there’s Mick Jagger’s own son, James, as Kip, a proto-punk singer in an up-and-coming band that she has set her sights on, The Nasty Bits, who has an unfortunate bad habit in smack addiction. And, of all people, a near-unrecognizable Ray Romano, as a fellow co-worker at Richie’s label that’s a total sleaze-and-a-half, in a career revitalizing performance.

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Of course, a show like this lives and dies by virtue of its soundtrack, and boy does this have a good one. Much like another Spike Lee “joint,” “Summer of Sam,” “Vinyl” truly represents and embraces all of the music of the era, and not just the obvious stuff, either. We definitely get the major, if somewhat typical stuff (Black Sabbath, Foghat, Led Zeppelin, albeit in a “cover” version- apparently even Scorsese has a hard time getting the rights for those guys, who are notoriously choosy about lending out their material to anyone), the unadulterated cheese (Chicago, Donny Osmond, ABBA), and the fringe stuff (NYDs, Iggy and the Stooges, mentions of Captain Beefheart and Professor Longhair).

But we also get R&B (Otis Redding, Chubby Checker, WAR, James Brown), Disco (Sylvia), old school chestnuts (Ruth Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley) and some amusing “cameos” from real-life personalities, albeit sometimes dubiously cast. Don’t get me started on the actors playing Zeppelin- though Ian Hart (who previously played John Lennon in “Backbeat” to excellent effect) gives good Peter Grant, the notoriously ill-tempered Zep manager, even if he could have stood to gained a few pounds, or at least worn a fat suit. Loved the recreation of the famous “Song Remains the Same” bootleg t-shirts incident, though!

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As you might have guessed from that aforementioned “insider” incident, this is jam-packed with in-jokes and references to the well-known personalities of the era, some of which are bound to sail right past those not in the know, but that’s actually a good thing. When you do that sort of thing and it sticks out like a sore thumb, you’ve done it wrong. Fortunately for Scorsese and company, they do it right, and then some.

Granted, it’s not a perfect show, as of yet. The pacing is a bit poky at times, and at nearly two hours, the pilot is maybe 15-20 minutes longer than it needs to be. There’s also a fair bit of gratuitous violence and nudity/sex, but I can’t say I was really complaining about that. It is taking place in the drug-and-swinger-fueled 70’s, after all. Besides, Juno Temple has done so much of it over the course of her career, I’d be harder-pressed to name a movie she hadn’t done nudity or sex in, rather than the opposite. (“Maleficent” is the only thing that comes to mind, off the top of my head and she was barely in that.)

But honestly, it’s nice to see Scorsese feel so engaged, so vital, at this course of his career. At this point, he could certainly be forgiven for resting on his considerable laurels, but he really gives this his all, from the eye-popping camerawork to the sweeping, epic scope of the pilot itself. It’s trademark, classic Scorsese, just like you like him, and it’s really great to see him respond to material this way again, after coasting a bit for some while now. Not that his work as of late has been bad, per se, but I liked this a damn sight more than a lot of it as of recently.

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Oh, I’ve no doubt there will be some naysayers out there claiming otherwise, that Scorsese is simply repeating himself or falling back on old tropes of his past work, but there’s no denying that he’s embraced the material in a big way here. This is a guy who clearly loves music as much as, if not more than film itself, and it really comes across here, in the sweeping soundtrack and the way he gives credit where credit’s due to even something like ABBA (Richie says presciently, that they’ll be filling arenas in no time) or one-hit-wonders like Soda Machine and Blue Cheer. Music has always been integral to the Scorsese film-scape, so why shouldn’t he tackle something like this, where music is integral to the characters’ very well-being?

While it remains to be seen how well this will be received by the masses, I’ll certainly be watching week-to-week, that’s for sure, for as long as it does last. The cast is appealing, the grooves are fantastic, and the scope is wide and far-reaching. What can I say? To coin a phrase from one of the producers: It’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

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What did you think of the “Vinyl” premiere? Will you continue to watch? How did you feel it ranked among Scorsese’s best work? What did you think of the cast? How about the music? Did you get a kick out of the “celebrity” cameos? What did you think of the closing sequence? Is Richie doomed, or will he pick himself back up from the rubble, literally, and get back on top again? Sound off on this and more down below and I’ll be back for a check-in about halfway through the show’s run!