One of the most accurate points made by HBO’s Show Me A Hero is that historical figures don’t always recognize how important their actions are in the moment. They just do what they think is best, whether for political, instinctual, or self-involved reasons, and if they’re lucky, they end up on the right side of history. Despite having the benefit of hindsight, David Simon and Lisa Belkin, who wrote the book on which the miniseries is based, never give their real-life protagonist, Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the awareness to realize the eventual significance of his decisions.
The same can’t be said of Vinyl’s central character, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale). As a record executive at his floundering label, American Century, it’s his job to predict the future; to find the next big thing in music; to pinpoint exactly who’s going to be important in the grand scheme of things—or at least who’s going to sell the most records. And unlike Simon and Belkin, creators Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter very much play the hindsight card via sparse voiceover from Richie.
“So this is my story,” he narrates in an early scene, voice full of chest-thumping machismo as he looks back on a meeting with the toothless German conglomerate offering to buy out American Century. “Clouded by lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement, and maybe a little bit of bullshit.”
Whether or not Vinyl’s writers intended it, that “bullshit” element refers not to Richie’s backstage dealings with Led Zeppelin, nor the jet-setting decadence practiced by both the musicians and American Century’s employees, but how keyed in Richie is to the musical groundswell around him. Once again, that’s part of his job description, but Scorsese (who directed the episode) and teleplay writers Winter and George Mastras go to great lengths to depict him as some sort of rock ‘n’ roll prophet, to remind the audience just how important the New York punk movement is and was, and how conscious he is of its weight when he stumbles upon it.
The pilot opens with Richie looking claustrophobic in his car, breathing heavily, swigging from a bottle of whiskey, and relapsing into a nasty cocaine addiction that he’s kept at bay for years. As we find out later, this all comes from the immense guilt he feels over the actions he’s taken on the way to salvaging his label, from neglecting his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), to screwing over several of his artists to becoming complicit in a major crime.
Then, as if sent by God, a stampede of young scenesters runs over his vehicle and into the nearby punk mecca of the Mercer Arts Center. Richie follows them, up a staircase bathed in sickly green light, strewn with syringes, junkies, and a dude getting blown in the corner—just a few of the grimy details Scorsese gets right. To say the director has plenty of experience depicting the underbelly of 1970s NYC (in addition to the more corporate side at the label’s office) is a severe understatement, and in Vinyl, he delivers the period details with a striking sense of visual antiquarianism.
As Richie makes his way into a concert hall, he catches the New York Dolls plowing through the kind of set that would justify Patrick Fugit’s laughable use of the word “incendiary” in Almost Famous. There’s a spark in his coked-out eyes at the recognition of something new, of a “next thing” so loud and revolutionary that dust rains down from the ceiling during an especially snarly performance of “Personality Crisis.” It’s an exciting image until the lighting rig collapses and the walls tumble down around the stage, followed by the rest of the building, with Richie and many concertgoers still inside. After the dust has cleared, Scorsese’s camera pans down from overhead to him lying in the rubble. His limbs twitch, he rises from the powdered brick and mortar, and he hobbles away with an inspired grin plastered across his face. He hasn’t just been moved by punk rock—he’s been reborn by it.
The Mercer Arts Center did indeed topple like a Jenga stack in August of 1973. But it happened around 5 p.m., before any bands were scheduled to take the stage. There’s no way the New York Dolls were present for its destruction, which makes the sequence—visually compelling as it is—not just heavy-handed for its fudging of history, but for the redundancy of its message. Most people watching Vinyl are undoubtedly already aware of the ground-shaking importance of ’70s punk music. Do we need such a drawn-out, blunt reminder of its authenticity, of its power to transform? The collapse of the Mercer isn’t even the first instance of this either. Earlier in the pilot, American Century’s A&R assistant, Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), sleeps with Kip Stevens (played by Mick Jagger’s son James), the frontman of a British punk band called The Nasty Bits that she’s pushing for the label to pursue.
“They was trying to kill us,” Kip says of the volatile crowd at his gig that night.
“Yes, because you made them feel something,” Jamie assures him.
I suppose she’s right. But is Vinyl going to say anything beyond “This was real music, maaan” in its coming episodes? Then again, how much is there left to say about a genre whose heyday is almost universally recognized as being legendary and impactful?
With that in mind, Vinyl functions best when it doesn’t try and make a grand statement about rock music at all, but rather the inner conflicts caused by a field where art is always being converted into commerce. Although he buries it within himself, Richie remains torn between his love for the raw side of rock ’n’ roll and being stuck in a position where he constantly promotes fluffy yet successful artists like Donny Osmond and screws over more substantial talent, most notably Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a bluesman who—despite Richie’s early-career promises—is forced by the label to sing shallow pop hits over his own material.
There’s also the issue of Richie’s home life, another force that’s at odds with the manipulative sleazeball he has to be at work. When he swears to Devon that he wants their hectic lives to return to normal after the buyout has gone through, we’re meant to believe him, even as he leaves the familial comfort of his own birthday party to meet with unstable radio mogul Frank “Buck” Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay). When Richie enters Frank’s mansion, the tension feels similar to the Alfred Molina sequence in Boogie Nights, with a gacked-to-the-gills Frank putting his jukebox on random and firing bullets at a projection screen showing James Whale’s Frankenstein, all while Richie feebly tries to convince him to play Osmond on his chain of radio stations.
As the tense conversation escalates into a devastatingly violent argument, it’s as if the two men—both characterized by a fiery charisma even in their most dangerous moments—are reflections of each other at different points in their lives. Frank constantly bemoans the adultery of his ex-wife, and here he is face to face with a guy in the same industry who’s managed to hold on to his own family. Likewise, Frank is a prediction of what Richie could become should he go too far down the rabbit hole of the music game: alone, drugged out, and unstable. It’s no surprise that their exchange soon explodes into Vinyl’s most interesting—albeit grisly—sequence. Despite the show’s killer soundtrack, it seems there’s much more to explore within the troubled characters listening to the music, as opposed to the music itself.
- For anyone interested in the real-life collapse of the Mercer (or, more accurately, the frequently derelict hotel that housed it), there are some informative articles here and here.
- I never expect 100 percent accuracy from period pieces, but Zebedee Row’s performance as Robert Plant feels a little too bullying and outwardly crass. While Led Zeppelin’s hedonism has been well documented, the real Plant always seemed to publicly carry himself with a touch of eloquence back then.
- There’s so much to cover in this two-hour mega-pilot that I didn’t even get to Richie’s partners, head of sales Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie) and head of promotions Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano). Outside of Cannavale, Romano is the most magnetic (no small feat among such a star-studded cast), using his sitcom-pleasant demeanor to maneuver his way into a string of payola handshakes.
- Scorsese always handles surreal interludes well, and Bo Diddley picking away on his cigar box-shaped Twang Machine while shrouded in fog is no exception. Hopefully there will be more dreamlike sequences to come.
- “You think you work hard? Try scraping Chubby Checker’s vomit off the inside of a toilet stall.”
- “I got a blowjob on a bus once. I’m in the Four-Foot-High Club.”
- “But your biggest hitmakers would have been the Led Zeppelins, no?”