Vinyl season 1, episode 7.
This Vinyl review contains spoilers.
Vinyl’s “The King and I” episode takes the young men west. Richie Finestra is giving his nose a break and digging deep into the farther reaches of human nature to change a perception that’s already been perceived. This is a road-trip episode with Zak tagging along as a watchdog, and Richie is tempted to give his buddy’s nose a break too.
The American Century Records visionary sees a lean future and lets everyone go hungry. But he also spoiled the buffet at Zak’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah while he was on his binge. Richie says he’s sorry, but Zak rightfully points out that he’s at the donating an organ step in contrition. It looks like it’s going to be a long, dry trip for Finestra.
When the boss is on the wagon it’s like Christmas in the offices of American Century Records. Clark (Jack Quaid) is a dweeb in a Gap ad who really does not deserve a chair, especially after you see him do his funky chicken dance. The last white-guy impersonation that came out of the mail room was the best. He rolls a joint out of Jamie’s (Juno Temple) familial disappointment. But really, he should have gotten his ass kicked anyway. Jamie’s already shouldering most of both the generational and societal gaps dealing with her mom, played by the Swedish actress Lena Olin
California doesn’t have that angry vibe that simmers under the concrete in the summer and occasionally spits out manhole covers onto bemused musicians taking breaks, like what happened to Lou Reed. The West Coast record guys have Malibu homes where Crosby Stills and Nash could smoke a pipe with Neil Young in December and reunite for a tour in the spring or Gram Parsons can expound on the spiritual significance of peyote buttons when catching a desert sunrise. You’d almost think he could find that piece of Richie that got lost. But Richie’s not quite hooked on a feeling, no matter what makes the charts on the Sunset Strip.
Bo Dietl plays my favorite character on Vinyl, I’ll admit it. Small roles are like onions in sauce on HBO. They sweeten the pot and this guy just cracks me up with every veiled threat and nuanced rejoinder. Every piece of logic that comes out of his mouth is a ping pong shot in his head and this guy is playing on a pool table, that’s the best way I can put it. When Maury tells him to “think before you speak” after he name drops Corrado Galasso (Armen Garo), it brings back every warped piece of information or botched comparison Joe Corso has made during the show. Between Corso using the don’s name as muscle so flippantly and Zak riffing on a Redd Foxx impression, I can’t decide which is higher comedy.
The episode centers on a meeting with the King. Elvis the Pelvis (and his brother Enis, my mom used to add) was the first real rock and roll superstar. He succeeded Frank Sinatra as the voice that could move teens and units. He was the first white artist to really get the feel of the new rhythms that were being generated and made rock and roll mainstream. But those early Sun session recordings were dynamite, as Zak remembers so fluidly. He is an obvious fan of the music and, like so many others, can’t stomach the jumps or the jumpsuits.
Go with me here, but the scene where Elvis and Richie finally meet feels like it could have been staged at that rock and roll fantasy camp Mick Jagger played on The Simpsons. This is the conversation everyone wanted to have with Elvis and this is exactly what they would have wanted to hear coming out of his mouth while was alive. A bare band backing produced by Pops Staples? What a perfect match. RCA couldn’t hear that, what with their Christmas records and the Las Vegas veneer they slapped on the original hound dog. John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine that he asked Elvis why he traded great records for mediocre films, but never got an explanation. I can see Mick wanting to ask Elvis the same thing, even when the Rolling Stones themselves were making bigger hits. Keith Richards got to assemble a band for Chuck Berry’s comeback. This scene had to come from a similar desire.
The scene is ultimately very sad, though. Because all of those fantasies, all the hopes that other artists pushed onto Presley, were vetoed by Colonel Parker (Gene Jones) and Shawn Klush, who plays Elvis, brings a sorrowful energy, if little of the Pelvis’s charming swagger. The scene where the Colonel tells Elvis to show Richie that move that scared Nixon’s Secret Service looks like an outtake from Manchurian Candidate and perfectly symbolizes the hold that music fans believe the manager had over his biggest talent. Zak wants to hear “Mystery Train,” and the Colonel takes away Richie’s chance to make that happen.
Romano and Cannavale are really well paired. They offer each other a balance, both with the characters and the space they give each other. They are relaxed and tense and you really wouldn’t want to leave your money with either one of them. Romano lands every punch line like it’s a rabbit punch, pulling back the last syllable to make you forget he ever did standup. It comes out like passive aggressive street fighting, while Cannavale’s Finestra doesn’t bother to duck and weave. He goes for the quick knockout and dances around if he misses his chance. They give a real feel that they’ve been sparring for a while and on some level it’s always been fun for them. When they’re of one mind it is contagious.
When the two decide to ditch the mellow, hooked-on-a-feeling-pushing west coast record guy Lou Meshejian, played by John Ventimiglia, who was Tony’s best friend Artie on The Sopranos, to snag a deal with the king of rock and roll, we root for them. We hope it’s a wild ride. Richie even gets to fulfill two of Zak’s rock and roll bucket list fantasies. Zak gets to fuck two beautiful young and sunny women in the ménage a trois that Jerry Seinfeld could never pull off without throwing out his entire wardrobe. Then Richie gets to make good on Zak’s demand that he unfuck him. You can almost hear the onset of chronic erection contraction as Zak realizes nothing is safe for a record guy. He condemns himself a sad, ultimate failure on the spot.
Ultimately, Richie is the Cyclone on Coney Island and it doesn’t matter how oiled the ride is or clean he is, machines and junkies need a fix. But it doesn’t matter if he’s sober or straight, Richie Finestra is a world class douche bag. You can’t change a perception once it’s been conceived and Finestra proves that’s a pretty good rule as he doubles down on 18. Even at his best behavior, this guy has no socially redeeming values. That happens to be the name of an unsigned punk band who’s CDs I own. Richie Finestra would have found them a perfect fit for Alibi Records. He is a punk. He will head bang before the series ends. So let it be written, so let it be done, as Andrea Zito (Annie Parisse) might say.
“The King and I” was written by David Matthews and directed by Allen Coulter.