At age seventy four, Martin Scorsese is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. After the critically acclaimed and visceral The Wolf of Wall Street, fans of the filmmaker were all anticipating whatever his next project would be; with Vinyl airing its two-hour pilot episode last night, the two year wait was more than worth it.
Much like Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl is an ensemble piece led by one man always on the brink of falling over the edge, Richie Finestra; chief executive of American Century, a record company on the verge of being bought out by Polygram Records. The pilot covers both Richie's rise to owning his own company as well as his downfall as the buy-out by Polygram begins to look less and less likely as the pilot goes on.
Richie is played magnificently by Bobby Cannavale, who won an Emmy for his role as the terrifying Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire. Its been a long time coming for Cannavale to get a lead role, and he honestly could not be a more perfect fit. Richie plays as the common archetype of HBO dramas: filled with regret, drug & alcohol issues, and a furious temper. Where he differs from others in that category, is his love for music. As messed up as he is, Richie's greatest attribute is his ear for good music.
Richie loves music so much it brings him to tears hearing a truly great band like Led Zeppelin or relative newcomers he just happens to hear at the bar (if fact, you could make it a drinking game every time Richie cries to music.)
The pilot does a great job of both establishing the supporting characters and the world they live in. An early stand-out was Juno Temple as Jamie Vine, an assistant in the A&R department (artists and repertoire) of American Century who is trying to move up the ranks by pushing a band she stumbled upon fronted by Mick Jagger's real life son, James Jagger, playing Kip Stevens.
Jamie already seems to have a knack for the music business, keeping her desk drawers at work fully stocked with various narcotics anyone needs to make it through a recording session. She catches the eye of Richie's musical side, as the pilot lays some nice groundwork for what can be an interesting dynamic between them on the show.
What really made the pilot stand out from the usual gritty HBO material was Scorsese's style and love of music. We sit through entire run-times of songs, the performances so energetic that they shakes the cameras themselves, making each song seem hypnotic and dream-like.
Often Scorsese uses classic artists as transitions, such as the spirit of Bo Diddly playing in front of a seething blue light, which is either in Richie's imagination or solely for the audience to get tripped out of their minds. There are few times in the episode where it's not entirely clear what's real and what's not, such as Richie stumbling upon a New York Dolls performance so powerful it literally brings the house down. These dream-like states are a hallmark of Scorsese's films such as in Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead.
Plenty of homages are apparent throughout. Scorsese is often tipping the cap to himself, showing the same grotesque '70s New York he perfectly portrayed in Taxi Driver, which is made all the more impressive given that this is forty years later. He also seems to homage filmmakers who have homaged him in the past, such as the episode-stealing scene with Andrew Dice Clay as Buck Rogers, which seems to be cut from the same cloth as Paul Thomas Anderson's infamous drug bust scene in Boogie Nights.
The episode isn't without its flaws. Olivia Wilde doesn't get much screen time to develop her character, playing the cliched, neglected house wife; and often the Scorsese/Terrence Winter voiceovers don't seem completely necessary. It can also be debated as to whether or not the HBO formula of dark and complicated male anti-heroes is beginning to wear out its welcome.
What makes this stand out so much from Scorsese's post-Goodfellas career is the perfect blend of his modern evolutions and his classic '70s style that made films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver instant masterpieces. Richie has enough good in him to be a sympathetic protagonist, making for a deeper story as opposed to the permanently despicable Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall St. Most importantly, its eclectic ensemble cast elevates it to the typical cops and robbers tale seen in The Departed.
I, for one, remain optimistic about Vinyl. Within its swift two hours, they set up everything necessary for a series, while at the same time the pilot could stand on its own as another Scorsese masterpiece. Its fantastic style comes off very unique compared to other shows currently in the cable world, and I'm very excited to see where it goes next.