Vinyl: HBO’s best series since Sopranos

Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

When I heard Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger were cooking up an HBO series about the music business in the 1970’s, I didn’t want to believe it. My brain wouldn’t compute what my heart was dancing around my chest about. Arguably the greatest director of all time and the greatest rock n’ roll front man baking a drama cake at the premium cable network giant that collects Emmy awards like I collect coffee mugs. Are you talking to me? No way. Then it happened. Vinyl was a reality.

Two episodes and three hours into this wonderful Sunday exodus, I want more. Right now. There’s a reason HBO renewed this series after one night. You don’t let gold leave the hotel room if you have it for the entire night. You don’t let gold get away so Lena Dunham can whine about her existential crisis for another couple seasons. Vinyl hits a cueball shot back to the glory days of HBO. Sopranos, The Wire, Oz and Boardwalk Empire. Shows that didn’t care if you dug them because they had swagger and walked like a heavyweight.


What’s it all about? Imagine a king sliding down the hill next to his throne. He’s still willing and powerful, but he’s lost touch with his people and can no longer reach them. Other kingdoms are just too white hot great for this king to stay relevant. He’s sliding down the hill. All he needs, though, is one branch to grab and save his life. One hit for a comeback. Say hello to Richie Finestra(Bobby Cannavale, picking up the role and hitting it 450 feet overt the center field wall). He’s the CEO of American Century Records, a label that realized so much talent. Led Zeppelin to The Grateful Dead, in a fictional world of course. It’s 1973 and Richie is lost. His company is tanking and a Finland group wants to buy them.

So there’s a contract sitting in front of Richie and a line of cocaine. Which does he choose? A former drug addict(hence the reason for his company going down the drain) who has snorted everything Keith Richards didn’t touch, he chooses the latter. There’s also a cop’s business card(which you will find out about later in the two hour premiere) that is eating at him. The pilot episode starts with him in a car, snorting coke and ready to give up on his company and sell. Then he hears a noise. A sea of mad hatters running towards his car. A few of them run over it. Where is this crowd going? Richie hears the music in his head. He gets out of his car and follows these people. He needs to hear this sound. This music. A sound that is making all of these people happy in their lives for if a small portion of time.

As Marley said, when you hear music, the pain of life dulls and the joy of the moment arises. For Richie, hearing this crazy looking rock band The Nasty Bits(led by an actor who happens to be Mick Jagger’s son, James). He hears them and starts to bob his head. Then, his head starts to bobble and swing like a wrecking ball in this tiny room that is too small for this crowd. Like a giant trying to fit his large foot into a tiny shoe. He’s feeling it. Richie is home at last. The music has replaced the cocaine and the rush is still there. Then, the building collapses on top of him. The next day, he chooses to keep his company.

Oh, I’m sorry. Did I spoil something for you? You didn’t really think Vinyl was about some sad begotten rock producer who wheels and deals his assets after selling his company. This show is about Finestra struggling to keep a stranglehold on his life and keep his company alive and well…in New York!

Scorsese directed the pilot and it’s beautiful. So many people didn’t realize on Sunday, February 14th that they were getting a two hour Scorsese film on HBO. Not in theaters. On cable. When Richie is running through the streets to find this band, it could be in the same world as Mean Streets, but from a different point of view. There’s Goodfellas in there towards the end with Richie, another guy and a radio legend(Andrew Dice Clay, killing it before he gets his own Showtime series). Some Departed mixes in there too. In reality, this is a live action Rolling Stones concert about the songs that Mick wrote decades ago. The stories inside their tunes that made the world reexamine what rock n’roll sounded like. This show evokes memories from many films, songs and places while breathing fresh air into our Sunday evening.

Cannavale hits the perfect stroke, combining a ruthless arrogance with passion and broiling rage. You saw it in Boardwalk with his fearsome Gyp, and you see it throughout the first two episodes. It’s like getting to taste the steak and then receiving the entire dish. Cannavale was born to play Richie. A hat tip to the beautiful yet ferocious Olivia Wilde, for playing Devon Finestra, a mother slowly realizing that her husband finds music and drugs more attractive than her and their children. Wilde has always been a pretty face, but Vinyl is her breakout role. She’s bare boned serious here, and digs into the role that so many other actresses with her looks would have fumbled like a goal line rush. Every Scorsese joint has a powerful female lead performance.

Ray Romano with his first great performance in a little over forever. As Richie’s right hand man, he doesn’t touch a false note as a man who knows his fate is tied to a sinking Albatross. Supporting players/faces like Max Casella, P.J. Byrne and Juno Temple fit in quite nicely, each one getting their own chance to flesh out a character instead of being treated like a cardboard box on a fancy boardwalk. Casella has the greatest line of the season in the second episode.

Vinyl lives and breathes off the electric writing of Terence Winter, the mind behind Boardwalk Empire and some of Sopranos’ darkest stories. There’s a reason Winter and Scorsese are working on their second straight series again and Marty is putting off his pile of film projects. He has found a second home on the small screen, a place where talents can expand over weeks and various episodes instead of one extended and exhausting film shoot. TV series are like a hideaway retreat instead of a weekend stay at the Holiday Inn that movies can be like.

Have you ever seen Begin Again, the John Carney gem with a never better Mark Ruffalo. Well, take Ruffalo’s screwup music producer back to the 1970’s, add a lot of drugs, and you have Richie Finestra in Vinyl. Same kind of struggle. Different time period. Add in Scorsese, Jagger, and Winter.

Finestra isn’t good at much in his life, but he knows good music and wants to rescue himself by saving his company. Will he? How many people will he hurt in the process? Is there a real win in the music industry? Vinyl makes an ambitious attempt to answer that question. Start it and stick with it. If it moves slow, trust the makers of this drink. It’s got a wicked kick.

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