Or Nah? is a new feature where we watch and review the first episode of a new TV show. We’ll let you know if it’s worth checking out. As always, these reviews are the opinion of the reviewer, but we’ll try to adequately explain why you should or shouldn’t give the show a chance and provide shows for comparison.
S1E1: Pilot | Sundays at 9pm | HBO | 10-episode season
Starring: Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano, Ato Essandoh, Max Casella, Juno Temple
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Vinyl is a drama set in 1970s New York, chronicling the life of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a record label president who is trying to save his company. To watch the first episode of Vinyl is to experience the tumultuous evolution of rock and roll. The two-hour origin story follows Richie in his allegorical journey from the bluesy jazz of the genre’s infancy to its punk rock teenage years.
The pilot is directed by Martin Scorsese, and his fingerprints are all over this feature-length origin story. From the scenes drenched in rich blues and reds, to the smooth tracking shots, to his innate ability to bring the uniquely claustrophobic open spaces of New York City’s streets inside its aged yet modern buildings, this pilot is unmistakably Scorsese.
Scorsese serves as executive producer with the series’ fellow co-creators Terence Winter, Rich Cohen, and Mick Jagger. Winter and Scorsese previously worked together on Boardwalk Empire, another well-received HBO period drama. Rich Cohen is a multiple-award-winning, bestselling journalist, and Mick Jagger is some kind of musician or something; never heard of the guy.
The thing about Scorsese’s involvement is that he directed the hell out of this pilot. I could rewatch this multiple times, and it stands all alone as a feature that doesn’t need a series to follow it. That’s what you get with one of the greatest directors to ever do his job. However, he did the same thing with Boardwalk Empire and proceeded to not direct another episode in that series’ entire run. He plans to direct more episodes of Vinyl, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t really recommend this series on the strength of how well Scorsese directed this pilot, since the weekly output of the series’ other directors may or may not equal his. The fact these directors do include the likes of Allen Coulter, Mark Romanek, SJ Clarkson, and Peter Sollett (director of a favorite of mine Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) absolutely bodes well for the series’ future, though.
Thankfully, the directing of Scorsese is not the only good thing about Vinyl‘s first episode. Far from it. For starters, Bobby Cannavale is a revelation. He’s, of course, had many critically acclaimed roles in his career–including the aforementioned Boardwalk Empire–but he gets the chance to own this series, and he pays in cash. The character of Richie Finestra is asked to carry the weight of rock and roll’s evolution on its shoulders, as he literally begins his on-screen life in a bluesy jazz bar and works all the way through the discovery of punk rock. Richie is caught between rock and roll and a hard place, and Cannavale faces this challenge with arms wide open.
The whole thing feels almost hyperstylized. If you’ve seen Scorsese’s The Rolling Stones (Oh! That Mick Jagger!) documentary film Shine a Light, then you’ve seen how he films actual musical performances like the ones on this show, but the performances shown here are nothing like that; they are hypnotic fever dreams. That general feeling follows the entire pilot, and I hope it continues with future directors here because it greatly informed the atmosphere of a 1970s time period when “clean your nose” wasn’t a tip about boogers, you know? Every character in the world of Vinyl seems to be walking around with this haze, and Scorsese’s direction did well to communicate that to the viewer.
Beyond the way the musical performances are captured, the music itself is fantastic. The performances are mesmerizing and satisfyingly eclectic. This show–at least the pilot–not only knows the time in which it is set, but it respects it. I hesitate to compare this series to another one which was cancelled after just one season, but I believe it is an apt comparison: The Comedians. The Billy Crystal and Josh Gad FX series didn’t catch traction with audiences, but what it absolutely did do is respect its subject matter. Every episode of The Comedians felt like a love letter to the history of comedy, and this episode of Vinyl absolutely feels like a love letter to the history of rock and roll.
Ultimately, in the question of “Vinyl of nah?”, the answer is an emphatic Vinyl.
Watch this if you like: Boardwalk Empire, Inside Llewyn Davis, Boogie Nights, American Hustle, Blue Jasmine
Vinyl S1E1 Pilot
Martin Scorsese’s directing elevates this pilot to an entirely other level, so it’s difficult to know if the direction of the upcoming 9 episodes will be as good. With the terrific performance of Bobby Cannavale, and an entire cast of great actors, as well as a clear respect for the music it’s capturing, though, the odds are in favor of Vinyl being yet another hit for HBO.