The first five minutes of Vinyl’s two-hour series premiere are a meditation, of sorts. It’s Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s HBO series about rock ‘n’ roll in 1973 New York, so you’re expecting a modicum of grit, but even still, the image of a mop-haired Bobby Cannavale buying, then contemplating, then snorting a fat rail of cocaine—all from the driver’s seat of his car—is a little startling.
It’s not because it’s anything we haven’t seen before, but how lovingly it’s shot, even as Cannavale’s eyes roll akimbo and he begins sweating profusely from the sheer zoot of it; the various shades of whiskey and tan are sumptuous and velvety, the shots zoom in at crafty angles. It’s essentially unglamorous—the character is fiending so desperately he rips off his rearview mirror for a snorting surface—but there’s a sentimentality about it that registers as though we’re meant to believe it’s also very cool. What they all did in the good old days. Gettin’ high, following a heard of screaming teens storming a Soho club for a concert by the New York Dolls.
I’ll be honest: I’ve anticipated Vinyl with trepidation since its first trailers, mainly because lionization of that era in rock ‘n’ roll usually overlooks its virulent misogyny and, not coincidentally, because it’s usually men doing the lionizing. The trailers alluded to the fact that the always-excellent Cannavale, playing tanking label head Richie Finestra, would spend half the series sniffing “Bolivian dancing dust” with his fealty pals and coworkers Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) and Skip Fontaine (JC MacKenzie), the other half running around New York pining for that one signing that can propel his label out of the red. (His label, by the way, is overly cannily called “American Century,” a metaphor with a club at the end of it.) Mick Jagger himself helped Winter and Scorsese conceive of this story (along with co-creator Rich Cohen), and he’s as exact an avatar for ‘70s misogyny as one can get, so when the first women with speaking roles in the first episode are gangly models spouting airheaded shit about Chekhov, it’s disappointingly familiar, but not unsurprising. This was an era in which rich white men thrived, could do whatever they wanted really, and at certain points my worst fears about Vinyl were realized: that it would therefore present the era as the best time to be alive by no coincidence of that.
Enter Juno Temple, playing the plucky underdog
Peggy Olsen Jamie Vine, a drug-dealing assistant to the A&R at American Century who, by the first episode’s narrative arc, is primed to break British anarcho-punk rock in this alternate-universe ‘73. Also here: American Century’s last great hope is to sign Led Zeppelin, leading to a cringeworthy dialogue with a “Robert Plant” whose accent keeps slipping in and out—Bobby Cannavale is too good for this shit, honestly, as is, I suspect, Juno Temple.
But we’ll see. There’s backstory here, and it’s fascinating if you happen to love listening to dudes in polyester suits having semi-historical conversations about the nuances of record deals to the point of tedium, or love hearing simulacra of songs by your favorite bands whose publishing costs are outside of Vinyl’s budget. Vinyl is very clearly indebted to Mad Men in both the male-centric historical drama department and through the emotional resonance of its main characters—Jamie is clearly about to come up under the tutelage of hard-ass boss Richie, who by the way works too much and as a result neglects his wife (Olivia Wilde) and children at home in the suburbs.
But the first episode lacks the underlying tension that propelled that show—clearly all the debauchery will soon lead to consequences, particularly if Richie keeps copping eight-balls from street pushers, though as of yet the stakes don’t feel high or even register. Its reverence for, and insistence on depicting, music industry history might be moderately entertaining for buffs, but to a point, and it’s neither the fault of the music industry nor the actors. Scorsese is a great director, and the show has a sense of surrealism about it with dreamlike musical montages drifting in and out. But in the vein of the dreadful Wolf of Wall Street, its priorities thus far are sharkish dudes and their province, lovingly remembering the bygone era in which their power went mostly unfettered.
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