When it comes to the ever burgeoning output of a legendary filmmaker with a recurring, recognisable style, there can be a tendency, once in a while, when it comes to a new work that’s perhaps a little subpar, to rely on that favoured descriptor of “autopilot”. It’s not always incorporated ideally; for one thing, it’s not exactly a problem for someone to work in the same register all the time, if it’s something at which they regularly excel. When it does seem appropriate, though, is when the style that usually works so well crops up, but in support of narrative material that isn’t up to scratch in comparison. Example: the Martin Scorsese-directed pilot of Vinyl, the HBO series he has co-produced with Mick Jagger and Boardwalk Empire collaborator Terence Winter.
Set in 1973, when the music industry was faced with various monumental upheavals, Vinyl focuses on Richie Finestra (Bobby Canavale), a New York-based label owner, whose company, American Century Records, is set to implode, if a deal with the German-owned Polygram doesn’t pan out. Immediately in this nearly two-hour pilot, however, Vinyl doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s really about the record business at all, bar some pandering to musician cameos (an uncomfortable scene with someone playing Robert Plant) and boardroom dismissals of a new Swedish pop band called ABBA.
Instead, Vinyl, in tone, characterisation and pilot episode plot specifics, feels more akin to one of Scorsese’s various crime epics, though truncated and somewhat tamed to fit into the confines of episodic television. The array of characters we’re introduced to here feel less like unique players for this particular show and more carbon copies of characters from both other Scorsese productions and other prestige TV dramas; Olivia Wilde’s wife, in particular, gives off immediate Betty Draper vibes. In fact, one major player in this pilot, Andrew Dice Clay’s radio figure, brings to mind Alfred Molina in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a film that some critics in 1997 inferred was aping Scorsese; the comparison to Molina is particularly resonant, given the major set-piece Clay’s character is involved with and various quirks he incorporates, regarding loud music and firing off a gun.
The structure and look of the episode, too, tend to invoke unflattering comparisons to other Scorsese films. The last 45 minutes of Goodfellas are specifically recalled in the pilot’s story, and there are even a few visual quotes. Additionally, while the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto (who shot The Wolf of Wall Street) certainly looks very nice at times, and makes some strong use of tinted backlighting, the evocation of the period consistently seems a little flat. It lacks a palpable, lived-in texture, never making its costumes and flirtations with the grime and muck of street-level New York come across as more than fancy dress and sound stages.
Perhaps to compensate, Prieto’s work is prone to constant swishing and tracking as with many snotable Scorsese features, with a token varied soundtrack to really get the blood pumping. The effect, though, isn’t so much stirring as it is distracting; the cinematographic tics of a Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street work to complement the character or narrative work. In Vinyl, they come across as a legitimate case of style overshadowing substance, because there really doesn’t seem to be much to this story so far, beyond stock character types and tropes, as opposed to actual people; flashy techniques to support lively performances that don’t come across as having much depth behind them. Vinyl feels like an adequate cover version, rather than an exciting new work.
The whole of Vinyl Season 1 is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch live online and catch-up after broadcast on NOW TV, which costs £6.99 a month, no contract.
Photo: ©2014 HBO