HBO’s ‘Vinyl’ Finds Martin Scorsese Taking A Plunge Into The Dangerous, Thrilling World Of ’70s Music

02.11.16

It’s four minutes into Vinyl — HBO’s new Mick Jagger- and Martin Scorsese-produced series set in the world of the 1970s music business — before we hear music. For another series, that might not be such a big deal. For Vinyl, it’s kind of extraordinary, since once the music kicks in it seldom stops. But first, as the show opens we get the sound of protagonist Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) panting in a parked car, conducting some tense business with some Greenwich Village drug dealers, then cutting up lines of coke with a homicide detective’s business card. Snapping him out of this troubled reverie: The sounds of excited teens rushing to the nearby Mercer Arts Center. It’s 1973 and the New York Dolls are playing. And they’re destined to bring down the house.

That’s half a spoiler, if historical events count as spoilers, but it takes a while for Vinyl‘s pilot to circle back to that fateful concert, which Vinyl stages half as an apocalypse, half as a moment of rebirth for Finestra. It’s the sort of show where one can sometimes look like the other. Either way, however, the moment sounds fantastic.

So does the show: Scorsese directs the two-hour pilot, which would probably be apparent even if his name wasn’t listed in the credits. As the camera tracks and pans through offices, city streets, and concert halls, one song follows another, sometimes shifting the mood, sometimes serving as ironic counterpoint to the action. There’s an unavoidable sense of a career coming nearly full circle here: Mean Streets was released in 1973. Among its many breakthroughs was the way Scorsese used pop music, which doubled as both the natural soundtrack to its characters’ lives and as the manifestation of their deepest, hardest-to-express emotions. It serves much the same function here as the episode flashes back to the days leading up to Richie walking through the Mercer’s doors then occasionally flashes back further, to moments in the lifelong love of music that made him, in his words, a “record man.” That term has a particular meaning here, much like “mad men” or, well, “goodfellas.” It’s not just an occupation, it’s a way of life, albeit one that, as the series begins, appears to be drawing to a close.

As the action shifts to Germany and Richie’s voiceover kicks in (any resemblance to Goodfellas and other Scorsese project surely no coincidence) we learn that Riche’s company, American Century Records, has watched the sun set on its heyday. The lineup of artists is all over the place — from Donny Osmond to England Dan & John Ford Coley — the profits aren’t what they used to be, and the not-entirely-legal tricks practiced by his partners — head of promotions Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) and head of sales Skip Fontaine (J.C. Mackenzie) aren’t working the way they used to. The label might be signing Led Zeppelin… but, then again, it might not. All in all, the prospect of selling out to Polygram looks pretty good. Hence the meeting in Germany and a proposed deal that leads to more awkward WWII references than the Fawlty Towers‘ “The Germans” episode.

Besides, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Richie to wind things down and take the desk job Polygram has waiting for him. He’s beaten back the coke habit that’s threatened to do in his business and his marriage to Devon (Olivia Wilde), a former habitué of Andy Warhol’s Factory with whom he’s settled down in Connecticut and started a family. But, as that opening scene already establishes, that’s not going to happen. Guys able to walk away from the wild life don’t end up ripping off their rearview mirrors to snort coke.

There’s a lot going on in this pilot, which also introduces a good dozen or so key players, like Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), an A&R assistant (with a sideline dealing drugs) who’s eager to climb the ladder at American Century. And Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a blues singer-turned-reluctant-pop star with whom Richie has a long, troubled history. The project has its origins over a decade ago and was first envisioned as a feature film to be written by William Monahan. Instead, the pilot has a story credited to Scorsese, Jagger, journalist Rich Cohen and Terrence Winter (The SopranosThe Wolf of Wall StreetBoardwalk Empire) and a script credited to Winter and Breaking Bad veteran George Mastras. It’s hard to escape the sense that the project has picked up mass like a rolling snowball in the years between, as if everyone involved needed to contribute every great story and weird character they knew from this period in the music business.

Perhaps unavoidably, this first outing feels a bit overstuffed and distracted at times. Richie’s voiceover, which seems like it’s going to serve as a through-line for the series, disappears fairly quickly. That, of course, makes sense given the show’s need to focus on so many other characters, some of whom have only enough to do here to suggest they’ll be major characters as the series moves on. Winter and Mastras’ script is economical and punchy but it is still easy to lose your bearings in this world.

That said, it’s not a bad world to get lost. The attention to detail here is remarkable, from the costumes to the venues to the dirty workings of the business, some of which get explained in a scene reminiscent of the “how the casino works” sequence in Casino. And the details matter. The choice to set the show in 1973 is no accident. The year was home to a lot of great music while still remaining something of a moment between eras, one that made clear the decade hadn’t quite yet found its voice. Over the course of the pilot, Richie encounters the first stirrings of punk, hip-hop, and disco and isn’t quite sure what to make of any of them. When a traffic detour brings him past a Bronx party where a DJ has begun working a break to the delight of a crowd, Richie wants to check it out but is barred entrance. He’s floated from one musical scene to another all his life. This might be one forbidden to him. The future may not want him.

(The only questionable element: Nasty Bits, the band Jamie desperately wants to sign. Their sound, their British lead singer (played by James Jagger, Mick’s son), and their f*ck it all attitude all seem more English punk than New York proto-punk. They seem more like strange visitors from the near-future than a product of the time covered by the series itself.)

So what kind of show will this develop into? At this point, it’s hard to say. Cannavale is excellent in the lead. Richie is the latest in a long line of prestige TV’s flawed antihero protagonists, but Cannavale keeps sounding soulful notes that suggest he’ll be his own character. He’s surrounded by a strong cast, too. Though not yet given that much to do, Wilde makes it clear she’s not going to be disappearing into a thankless wife role and Romano puts his natural comedic timing to work in a largely dramatic role. Will it look half as good when directors other than Scorsese take the reins? That’s hard to say, too. (HBO provided several episodes, but I didn’t want to peek ahead.)

These two hours, at least, are filled with memorable moments and the promise of more to come. It’s exciting just to see Scorsese’s cameras moving once again through the streets of ’70s New York, with its grit and its sense of danger. When Jamie walks through a subway station without a graffiti-free inch, its sign serves as a punchline: Times Square. And there are moments here as striking as anything he’s ever filmed, particularly the New York Dolls bookend sequences. To see the Dolls in New York in the ’70s is a classic rock-and-roll you-had-to-be-there moment. Scorsese makes it feel like we are. If the series can keep that going, and maintain the danger and immediacy of that bygone era and making it feel like it could easily swallow up those who live in it, it should be a thrill to watch. And a thrill to hear.

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