There’s a scene early on in Vinyl in which a drugged up blonde writhes in Ray Romano’s lap on a private plane, spouting gibberish at him about her philosophical beliefs and abiding faith in Chekhov. A sober Bobby Cannavale watches from a distance with the kind of look you only get after you’ve been at a party too long; the blow hasn’t quite yet run out, but you can’t help but wonder why the fuck you’re still there.
Vinyl manages to capture quite a number of those moments, while simultaneously strapping you in for one hell of a ride. Centered on Richie Finestra (Cannavale), the head of a rapidly dying record label in the 1970s, the show isn’t just a prestige television show that happens to be about music; it’s a sumptuous musical odyssey that’s so immersive from the get-go, you can almost taste it.
Vinyl is very much an HBO show — but it also harkens back to a time in the not so distant past that HBO shows used to be fun. That’s not to say that I’m not transfixed by the inner workings of Westeros or Atlantic City (and there’s a rather similar power structure between the two), it’s just that in the past few years, things on HBO have taken a turn for the much more serious, rather than the darkly comic joy that was its Sopranos and Six Feet Under heyday. Lightly dancing between comedy and drama, with stellar comedic performances from Romano especially, Vinyl is a borderline parody, rather than a humble homage, but it needn’t worry: even in those moments of pensive drug use — especially in those moments — the show feels more grounded than ever.
The two-hour pilot reunites director Martin Scorsese with showrunner Terence Winter, his Boardwalk Empire collaborator.From the start, you’re reminded why, of the many visual love letters to New York, Scorsese’s are the very best. New York in the 1970s screams to life in front of his lens, and he pulls no punches sugarcoating just how grimy New York actually was back then. Yet Scorsese finds the ethereal in the dirt; a subway station at Times Square glows orbitally around Juno Temple (who is excellent here as an assistant at Cannavale’s struggling record label) as she exits the station. If you blinked and missed it, watch again towards the end of the pilot — it’s unmissable.
It’s hard not to think of Scorsese favorites like Goodfellas when judging whether Vinyl hit the mark or not, but to its credit, there’s never a dull moment to be had, thanks to cleverly interspersed full songs, alongside a plethora of live shows, record players, and even a semi-anachronistic cassette tape. Even if Winter and Scorsese had fallen short in their storytelling, executive producer Mick Jagger’s hands are all over the seventies glam rock starting to burgeon onscreen. The result is a program that does its one job remarkably well: to entertain.
But if Cannavale wasn’t the one playing Richie Finestra, the head of struggling record label American Century, this whole thing might have just fallen apart. Cannavale’s expressions could fill another two-hour pilot of their own (as could his hair), and he’s never more devastating than when confronted with his past mistakes. He plays Richie with such grit that it’s not Richie’s deep abiding love of snare drums that makes him relatable, it’s that he’s the type of guy who could go from his own birthday party to snapping the mirror off his car just to do a bump.
Cannavale owns the space in any scene he’s in, especially paired against Romano and Olivia Wilde, who plays his wife and a former Warhol muse, but both Romano and Wilde deliver performances that are tour de force. A subplot involving an unnecessary murder drags, but even through that, Cannavale is able to anchor the show.
The filmmaking is par excellence, the music is inspired, and the performances are juicy, yet none of those are reasons why you should watch. Vinyl may not be HBO’s greatest show; it may not even go down in the annals of decade history. But it is a show unlike any other, in that every aspect — script, music, scene — is engineered to entertain as authentically as possible. And for a show about a record exec just looking to be entertained, can you really ask for anything else?
Vinyl premieres on HBO on Sunday, February 14th at 9 EST.