Vinyl: Pilot Review

Record label owner Richie Finestra hears the future of rock and tries to get it down on Vinyl.

Vinyl season 1, episode 1.

This Vinyl review contains spoilers, lots of spoilers.

The pilot of HBO’s Vinyl is a Martin Scorsese movie. A full movie. It clocks in at just under two hours. Mean Streets wasn’t even two hours. Taxi Driver was only a minute longer than Mean Streets. King of Comedy was barely over an hour and a half. The only thing missing from Vinyl’s “Pilot,” is an ending. Because it’s only the beginning.

Like many Scorsese movies, Vinyl has a narration by the main character, a faithful representation of New York City and a killer soundtrack that gives equal time to the many facets of rock and roll. Disco meets rock just like the twist bumped into blues and punk gets a meeting with the godfather.

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Rock music label owner Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale, has seen the future of rock and roll and it ain’t Bruce Springsteen. He is maneuvering his way through a deal with the Nazis who run Polygram and a boycott from a radio station magnate who has a hard on for Donny Osmond. A Mormon with bad asthma and a whole lotta teeth. Finestra is also showing a whole lotta love for Led Zeppelin, until their manager, the British thug Peter Grant, reads the fine print and Robert Plant says he won’t be American Century Records’ mud shark.

Finestra is a long time music man. He grew up on the blues but didn’t have the talent to write songs, so he found a blues master who could and rode him into an A&R gig at Maury Gold’s (Paul Ben-Victor) rock and roll record label. Finestra has an ear that’s hungry for music. Sadly he’s also got a nose that has its own appetites. Finestra is a former user. Like Christopher on The Sopranos, he’s always around booze and drugs and veers around it by sheer will. If HBO has taught us anything, they taught us that this never works because if it did, it would kill a lot of drama and a little comedy. Unlike Christopher, Finestra isn’t a pain in the ass about his abstinence to the people around him who haven’t begun to just say no.

It appears that Cannavale’s character Richie Finestra, the founder and apparent soon-to-be-ex-president of American Century Records, must be partially based on Marty Thau, who saw a sign outside the Mercer Arts Center advertising NEW YORK DOLLS: 2 SETS $3 and couldn’t resist. Thau quit his job at Paramount Records six months earlier. He paid the price of four sets and took his wife to see “five guys dressed as women in horrible makeup and jewelry.” He was managing the New York Dolls almost before they got off stage. Finestra is the guy the guy behind the bar who twisted blues guitarist Lester Grimes, played by Ato Essandoh, into dance craze singer Little Jimmy Little to make new friends.

Ray Romano’s Zak Yankovich isn’t really that far removed from his Everybody Loves Raymond role. What’s not to like? A music promoter for as long as rock and roll has been worth hawking, every crack comes out wise. The guy’s got the hundred dollar handshake down and gets to do physical humor. The scene where the DJ is snorting payola off a record spinning on a turntable is reminiscent of Stan Laurel chasing an olive across a plate at a fancy dinner, but quicker, much quicker, 33 and a third revolutions per minute. The punchline comes when the audience realizes that the scratch they just heard was also broadcast out across the airwaves.

We first see American Century A&R head Julie Silver on his knees, screaming that he isn’t shouting. Max Casella, who played Benny Fazio on The Sopranos starting in its third season, throws a lot of angst into that leisure suit. Benny was the guy who was happy to sit in the backyard with a rifle to protect the boss’s wife from bears. Silver could turn out to be the bear. Casella is always fun to watch and here he’s got a lot to show. He’s going to be trouble and it’s going to be fun. Silver is on the same page as Finestra but he’s reading the paperback edition.

Olivia Wilde is scrubbed clean as Finestra’s wife Devon. Stepford Wives was still only a satirical book by Ira Levin, but you can see she’d like to wash more than the dirt from Richie’s brain. Finestra’s been doing his own dusting.  Ingrid (Hjort Sørensen) tells the suburban mom of two that Andy Warhol sends his regards and everyone wonders what she’s doing for fun in Connecticut. To hear Devon tell it, she’s having a stone blast, just as long as no one’s playing air guitar with a practice amp pushed up to 10.

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P.J. Byrne plays the company mouthpiece Scott Levitt. He trades his mile high club mileage for royalty points. Mick Jagger’s son James plays Kip Stevens, the Nasty Bits singer who is a little out of sequence. He is discovered based on his look by Jamie Vine, played by Juno Temple, the coffee-with-an-eightball-sweetener girl.

Scorsese intrudes each of the players like they are goodfellas who didn’t get the good seats at the Copa. These guys couldn’t touch Bobby Vinton, even if they’re now stuck at marathon recording sessions with England Dan and John Ford Coley and Donnie fucking Osmond. Everyone has the potential to be even looser cannons than Finestra. J.C. MacKenzie plays Skip Fontaine, the head of sales at American Century, like he went to law school at Allen Klein University and promotion man Joe Corso (Bo Dietl) has such an endless supply of coke it could take your head off.

Andrew Clay is unrecognizable as Frank “Buck” Rogers. Until he opens his mouth, then he rolls out the Dice. Rogers is a real asshole, whether he looks like one or not, and Dice brings everything he got from the streets until his head gets cracked open like a jar of clay. Twice. The second time is pure gore, like a seventies horror movie. Clay digs deep into that dirty nursery rhyme street performer and pulls out a heavy performance. The kiss is brilliant and proves you can’t keep a hard man down.

The New York Dolls weren’t playing when the Mercer Arts Center collapsed. You can blame the Dolls for a lot of things, they themselves said they single-handedly lowered the bar in rock, but they were out of town. And they have witnesses to prove it. The roof falling in on Finestra’s head is symbolic. It is a life-changing event, or in Finestra’s case, a life-affirming event, because this proves everything he’s believed in his whole life. Rock and roll isn’t a genre of music. It is a religion, as sacred as youth and with fewer restrictions.

“Pilot” was directed by Martin Scorsese, from a story by Rich Cohen & Mick Jagger & Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter, The teleplay was written by Terence Winter and George Mastras.