Even a record that’s a start-to-finish stone classic has one or two standout tracks that sum up the whole blessed thing: your “Stairway to Heaven” or, say, your “Drunk in Love.” And in the pilot episode of Vinyl, — the Martin Scorsese–directed, Mick Jagger–produced Seventies NYC rock drama from Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter — a pair of scenes distinguish themselves from the pack. In the first, a coked-up, bottomed-out record exec named Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) rapturously watches the New York Dolls deliver a performance of “Personality Crisis” so blistering it literally brings down the house. In the second, Finestra and industry sleazebag Joe Corso (portrayed by real-life ex-cop and frequent Scorsese collaborator Bo Dietl) take a radio mogul played by Andrew “Dice” Clay and bash his skull in on-screen.
Based on this initial episode, in other words, this show is not going to make converts out of skeptics. Vinyl is for Horror City nostalgia buffs and people predisposed to belief in the healing power of rock & roll. It’s for music nerds who’ll flip out equally for cameos by golden god Robert Plant, his maniac manager Peter Grant, and hip-hop progenitor DJ Kool Herc … all on the same night! It’s for those pop scholars who’ll catch references to both perpetual also-rans the Good Rats and soft-rock punchlines England Dan and John Ford Coley. And it’s also for the kind of Scorsese fans who’ll recognize a scene’s doo-wop-soundtracked mafia meeting as a GoodFellas descendant and who crave first-person voiceover narration like Jordan Bellfort jonesed for quaaludes.
So is it for you? You may think you know the answer already. But don’t be so sure.
Winter and Scorsese’s previous TV collaboration, Boardwalk Empire, worked this same way at first. Are you into sumptuously shot mafia period pieces? Well, here’s an expensive-looking HBO drama in which Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Arnold Rothstein are all major players — knock yourself out! It took until the bugfuck climax of the show’s second season, which boasted enough incest and main-character deaths to put Game of Thrones to shame, for the show to establish an identity beyond “If you like A, why not try B.” And, not at all coincidentally, it took Bobby Cannavale’s third-season starring role as mad-dog gangster Gyp Rosetti to give the show a villainous performance that would raise the level of its antagonistic antiheroes accordingly.
Here, Cannavale is an ingredient from the very first frame, and man, does it pay. Sure, he may not work so well in the flashbacks that require him to be a young man—with his weary eyes and meaty features, this is clearly a person who looked like he was draft age in fifth grade. But in every other respect he carries the material. His natural hangdog expression helps him sell every bad vibe that befalls him, from his anxiety about his company’s pending sale to his regret over the fate of his first musical act to his guilt over the murder(s?) in which he was involved. But because his default state is so physically well-defined, the scenes in which he flies into a rage or is transported into musical ecstasy are all the more shocking and convincing. There aren’t many actors who could make googly eyes at Olivia Wilde, furiously assault Andrew “Dice” Clay, and bliss out over David Johansen in a single episode of television with anything close to believability. This actor can.
The scene-stealing supporting cast is a big help too, which is vital — let’s face it, Scorsese or no, a two-hour series premiere would be a hell of a slog otherwise. Juno Temple’s A&R assistant/drug plug (the two jobs are basically one and the same) Jamie Vine is particularly intriguing. She’s an up-and-comer able to dip her toes into decadence but pull out in time to get her job done — and done well, a skill her peers clearly lack. This is the woman everyone else will wind up working for in a few years, as Temple’s clear-eyed look of determination at all times makes clear; even her pillow talk with slightly anachronistic punk dirtbag Kip Stevens is pure business. Telling him he should make having no talent, no interests, and no given fucks his selling point? Now that’s marketing.
Elsewhere, P.J. Byrne’s incompetent hipster-wannabe lawyer character Scott Levitt is a scream every time he shows up, his try-hard muttonchops making him look every bit the “bridge troll.” Ditto the always welcome Max Casella’s even more comically hirsute character, the out-of-touch A&R man Julie Silver. Ray Romano is at first unrecognizable beneath the period-appropriate beard and coif of payola chief Zak Yankovich; only his unmistakable adenoidal voice gives it away. And Ato Essandoh makes a hell of an impression as Lester Grimes, the ahead-of-his-time singer-guitarist forced by Richie to crank out teenybopper crap like a proto-“Twist”; he has the luminous, heavy-lidded eyes of a born star. (Unfortunately, Olivia Wilde, as Richie’s wife Devon, is given little more to do than look unhappy in caftans. Her righteous anger when her husband falls off the wagon, however, bodes well for her future.)
But it’s the three Ds — the Dolls, Dietl, and the Diceman — who matter the most. The shot of that gleefully over the top skull-bashing plays like the “Jessie’s Girl” scene from Boogie Nights combined with the Red Viper’s death in Game of Thrones. The episode’s climax, in which Richie literally rises from the ashes of the venue that the New York Dolls physically destroyed with the power of their performance, is even more so. You either like your rock drama played at maximum volume like this, or you don’t. It’s in the ear of the beholder.