It starts with a guy (Bobby Cannavale) in his car in a scuzzy Seventies New York alley, buying a vial of cocaine. Not the most surprising opening for the first episode of Vinyl, HBO’s music industry drama, produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. Then come the twists, small at first: the guy ripping off the rear view mirror to chop out his lines; a crowd of punks and freaks running right over the top of his car and drawing him out along with them to a basement club. The bigger twists, such as how he got to the alleyway in the first place, are too good to be spoiled here.
Over the course of the two-hour pilot directed by Scorsese, there is much to admire. The magnificent dialogue is scripted by George Mastras and Terence Winter. Mastras worked on every season of Breaking Bad; Winter is an alumnus of The Sopranos, who also co-created Boardwalk Empire (for which Scorsese directed a two-hour pilot), and wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “I had a golden ear, a silver tongue and a pair of brass balls,” says Cannavale’s character Richie Finestra, in voiceover, “but the problem became my nose, and everything I put up it.”
So, there is a lot of drugs — and sex and rock’n’roll — plus a retro workplace environment and criminal behaviour, in the tale of a man who can feel life slipping through his fingers (and his possibly deviated septum). You might say it’s Goodfellas meets Casino meets Mad Men, and conclude that Vinyl is not as original as you’d hoped. Or you might say that using key elements of those entertainment milestones and spinning them into the excess-all-areas Seventies music industry is a recipe for success.
But there is real heart here, especially in the performance of Cannavale, who, as record label boss Finestra, is fragile, feisty and funny. Scorsese’s direction makes for easily the most visually arresting, at times epic, TV pilot there’s been (yes, including Lost and the plane crash). It’d be impossible to watch the astonishing finale of the first episode without wanting to watch the second, if only to see how they can follow it up.
Vinyl starts on Sky Atlantic on 15 February