A work that doesn’t so much wear its ambition on its sleeve as unzip its fly and brandish it, the pilot episode of Vinyl is big, loud, a bit of a mess, intermittently fascinating and frustrating, and probably an unreliable bellwether of where the series will progress. Its circular structure relays, through not always linear flashbacks, the last decade or so in the life of record company executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), who in the present day of 1973 is introduced in an agitated state buying a considerable amount of cocaine. He does a line. The universe appears to be righted on its axis. Then the streets are alive with glitter rock kids, surging in a wave to see the New York Dolls. Richie follows, because there is no doing otherwise. Inside, all is rock and roll.
Like the remainder of the massive, sprawling, two-hour episode, its entire fortune is hitched to its director. The best moments in the Vinyl pilot are ones that feel the most like Martin Scorsese grabbing the show and making it do his bidding, whether it’s luxuriating in the multicolored lights in a concert (with one nails-on-chalkboard exception, the musical sequences are all stunning), or dragging Richie out of his house in the middle of the night to be audience to a drug-crazed putz Dionysus, or eliciting subtext in the gangster storyline borne on the back of previous classics in the genre. These moments are enthralling, pulsing with life, delirious sensual excursions, exulting in cinema and what it can do, not least that it can be TV.
But like the opening sequence, which slams to an abrupt halt to provide some exposition, the pilot is most awkward when it’s in the business of being about what it’s about. The teleplay, by co-creator Terence Winter and co-executive producer George Mastras, overdoes things with the setting up and walking through of the general plot framework, dwelling overmuch on explicitly stating and restating the details of the deal Richie’s company is making with a German consortium looking to buy them out. It’s the least interesting part of the episode, which is at the very least mildly concerning, as it’s the main plot.
The other main issue at hand, and much more of a cause for concern, is the way in which real music and musicians are dealt with. Scorsese’s direction — as does the script, in ham-handedly explicit fashion — makes as plain as one can that the show is more alternate universe 70s rock fanfic than it is meant as a naturalistic recreation of the actual milieu. And, in a nod to logistical necessities, music clearance fees are expensive. And if you squint (your ears, too) the New York Dolls almost sound like the real New York Dolls even if they don’t look like them, and it doesn’t matter in any case because the sequences in which they figure that bookend the episode are stunners. But there’s a whole scene with a guy who is not Robert Plant pretending to be Robert Plant. And he proceeds to go out on stage and not sound like Robert Plant, and his band does not sound like Led Zeppelin. It’s only a moment and then it’s over, and its specter dissipates quickly. And yet.
Returning to positives, there are some potentially fascinating performances taking shape among the ensemble cast. Bobby Cannavale holds the center with grace, even if Richie is made out of overly familiar (and by this point, a bit threadbare) Man With Inner Conflict stuff. Ray Romano is an ongoing case of “holy shit, that’s Ray Romano?” in every scene, as another exec. Juno Temple’s ambitious A&R assistant shows some promise, if properly developed, as does Olivia Wilde as Richie’s wife (scenes from upcoming episodes show, thankfully, that she will have a role to play other than The Wife). The most intriguing character, seen mostly in flashback, is Ato Essandoh’s Lester Grimes, a former client of Richie’s in his early days as a manager, who may — in a tantalizing bit of foreshadowing — be a part of the pre-embryonic South Bronx hip hop scene. Essandoh’s work in the role is impeccable, surpassing even an astonishing turn by Andrew Dice Clay as the pilot’s standout performance.
Trying to divine the future of a series from its pilot is a fool’s errand, and even more so when so much of the show’s appeal as yet rests in the “in nomini patris, et filis, et cinema sancti amen” passion of its director, the cinema’s most charismatic priest. Scorsese is reported to be returning to direct subsequent episodes, and one can only hope his initial push is enough to keep the ball rolling.
Danny Bowes (@bybowes) is an artist and critic whose film and TV writing has appeared in Premiere, Tor.com, The Atlantic, Indiewire, Yahoo! Movies, RogerEbert.com, Salt Lake City Weekly, and The A.V. Club.