Slick and polished, like many of the “dying acts” on mogul Richie Finestra’s fizzling record label, Vinyl’s premiere episode is an impressive spectacle. Directed by Martin Scorsese – who also serves as EP, along with Mick Jagger and Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter – Vinyl first outing places us right in the middle of an early ’70s music industry sea change. Behind the eyes of a character who’s already seen things change drastically over the previous two decades.
Vinyl, as a series, is deeply in love with classic rock (and its accompanying blues origins), as Bobby Cannavale’s impassioned Finestra serves as our self-destructive, guilt-ridden anti-hero. A man with a “golden ear” who built a music empire while also slowly losing his soul in the process. Finestra, as a character, is never lacking in the nostalgia department, but flashbacks throughout this two-hour premiere detail his regrettable ride from an earnest music-loving barkeep to an earnest manager to…well, someone who’s talked into seeing musicians and signers as commodities.
And Cannavale is great. As a trouble-attracting bulls***ter (who readily admits that his tale might be clouded by lost brain cells and lies), Finestra can be hard to take at times. As can a lot of the things we see take place during this particular era. Not that it’s not truthful, but it’s rare that five minutes passes here without someone making a choice that we can see now, with forty-year hindsight, as being a bad decision. And there’s a novelty in that, but it’s also a type of crutch.
Anyhow, as mentioned, Cannavale gives us a very strong performance. He’s often on the edge, though his love for music (again, usually a very specific type) manages to successfully suck us into his headspace and show us his ultimate priorities. When we meet him, he’s in a bad place. Booze. Drugs. About to make a call to the cops. Presumedly to make a confession. But then the roar of exuberant youth distracts him. A bunch of fans rushing to see a New York Dolls concert. He’s pulled up and out of his cares and worries and distracted by a feeding frenzy of glam rock and chaos.
From there, the episode takes us back over the days leading up to this scene and shows us all the events that bring Finestra to his breaking point. It’s an effective way to introduce everyone while also spotlighting some of the quicksand that perpetually works to sink our hero. A massive buyout deal with a German/Dutch company that seemingly hinges on the signing of Led Zeppelin. A crazed radio station owner (Andrew Dice Clay) threatening to boycott Finestra’s label. Guilt over accidentally running into his former, seriously-wronged blues prodigy (Ato Essandoh). It all begins to pile up on Finestra’s “trying to be sober” shoulders.
Also adding solid performances to the mix are Ray Romano and J. C. MacKenzie as Finestra’s right-hand execs, along with Olivia Wilde as his wife – a former member of the Andy Warhol Factory scene who now pines for her days as a free-spirited sexual radical. And almost perpendicular to all of this is Juno Temple’s ambitious office assistant Jamie, who finds herself attracted to (both professionally and personally) a heroin-soaked nihilist punk singer and his band The Nasty Bits. A storyline that brushes up against the punk movement in a way to suggest that Finestra himself may start broadening his horizons. Well, this story and the way the episode violently ends on a historically tragic note.