Monday, February 15, 2016

Vinyl (first episode)

Vinyl is a ten-part HBO series produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese.  The show's first episode aired on Valentine's Day, 2016 and was astonishing, an operatic return to form for its director, Martin Scorsese.  I don't have any idea how the rest of the series will turn-out -- on the evidence of the first show, the rest of the series may have no place to go.  I don't know how the program could possibly top the spectacle unleashed in the premiere.

Scorsese, one of American film's greatest (and most learned) directors, has been idling for awhile.  I thought his work on The Wolf of Wall Street was mannered, all of his typical tics and obsessions "phoned-in" as it were -- the movie had no dramatic arc and proved, I think, that greed for greed's own sake is an uninteresting subject.  Watching that film, I had the sense that Scorsese had little or no interest in the protagonist and that he was, perhaps, too embedded in the milieu of the ultra-wealthy to successfully satirize those people.  But Scorsese is passionate about rock and roll and its origins -- as witness his films on the Blues.  He was one of the many cameramen that shot Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock and, in his early films basically invented the MTV video -- in that regard, see the use of the Rolling Stones' in Mean Streets and Donovan's "Atlantis".  Building on Kubrick and Richard Lester, Scorsese recognized that images could be cut to music rhythmically -- his use of music in films was not to create "mood," but to literally synthesize or fuse the images and their rhythmic cutting with the tunes on the soundtrack.  (This is also on display in spades in Scorsese's great concert film The Last Waltz).  Accordingly, it's obvious that Scorsese is immensely interested in the subject of Vinyl, music produced in New York City in 1973.  Although there were some elements of Vinyl's opening episode that were formulaic, Scorsese's fundamental and obsessive passion for the material irradiates the plot and the show felt literally explosive.

In summary, Vinyl concerns an Italian-American record producer, Richie Finestra, who runs a label called American Century.  Finestra's business has its offices in the Brill Building and the script buzzes with references to music and New York culture in 1973 -- people talk about "Lou" and Robert Plant excoriates Finestra for betraying Led Zeppelin in the fine print of a contract; Andy Warhol is lurking at the edges of the scene and the climactic scene involves a concert played by the New York Dolls.  Punk music is surfacing and the business is rapidly changing.  The first episode involves a five-day period, probably in August 1973, in which Finestra negotiates with PolyGram(the successor to Deutsche Gramophone) to sell his label to "the Germans."  Finestra is a recovering alcoholic and has a shameful backstory -- he rode to success, like many in the industry, on the back of a black artist, a Blues singer, who he betrayed and who has been mutilated by members of the mafia.  Beginning as a bartender, Finestra persuaded the blues man to "sell out" and play music that the artist regards as songs for children -- Chubby Checkers' twist records.  In a cruel twist, Finestra sells that part of the business to a Sicilian mobster, selling the Black bluesman as well -- a transaction that invokes chattel slavery.  With money from that sale, Finestra starts his own record business.  In the show, he celebrates a birthday, relapses into alcoholism and drug use, and inadvertently commits a murder -- the homicide, involving a totally corrupt former DJ who owns a string of radio stations (spectacularly played by Andrew Dice Clay) arises during a drunken, cocaine-fueled binge.  (This scene is very funny and horrific all at once).  With the drug-fiend's factotum, played by the sinister and menacing Bo Dietl, the corpse is hidden.  But the pressure of the transaction with the Germans, complicated by Led Zeppelin bolting from the label and Fenistra's panic at the murder, knocks the hero off the wagon.  When a crowd of maenad-like fans appears out of nowhere, literally trampling the car where Finestra is boozing and snorting cocaine, the hero follows them into a concert.  The New York Dolls are playing and, in a riveting scene, the high-decibel band literally rocks the house down -- Finestra is caught under a falling chandelier as the entire brownstone collapses into a cloud of dust and smoke.  The scene has the vivid, campy charge of Poe's gothic "Fall of the House of Usher" -- a crack like a lightning bolt slashes through the walls, signifying the power of rock and roll, but also the collapse of the house of Finestra; everything comes tumbling down.  Then, we see Finestra, like a living corpse, rise from the debris -- he looks like one of those stunned survivors of 9-11, all covered in dust -- and staggers down the desolate street.  How the show can top this extraordinary scene, resonant with allegorical significance, is beyond me.  In classic HBO form, there's lots of gratuitous sex -- in one scene, Finestra meets the drug-addled radio mogul in a place called "Oasis", a sex club,, and a tapestry of naked people copulating writhes behind the dialogue in the foreground.  There's a subplot involving the inception of punk music that involves an employee of Finestra's, the sandwich girl, having sex with a punk who looks vaguely like Richard Hell or Johnny Rotten.  Some of this stuff is stupid and unnecessary -- the Germans are portrayed with accents out of a bad anti-Nazi movie (every real German speaks English with a soft accent and better than most Americans) -- but the power of the whole enterprise lies in the music and here Scorsese shines.  He cuts back and forth to various performances, some of which seem motivated purely as commentary on the action -- in several cases, we see great Black performers who seem to appear out of nowhere and play their music in a kind of dream-space parallel to the action of the film.  It's the music that drives the show and the music is superb -- Mick Jagger apparently can get song-clearances for the show at will and so the whole thing pulses with first-rate Blues and rock and roll.  It's premature, of course, to make any declarations about this series -- we have no evidence beyond the first episode.  But this episode, self-contained in all respects, is as good a piece of Scorsese's direction as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver 

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