The series Vinyl, which premieres on HBO in the US on February 14 and in Israel on February 15 on YES Oh at 4 a.m. and 10 p.m. (and will continue running Mondays at those times), is unquestionably the television event of the 21st century.
Created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter (one of the writers/producers of The Sopranos), Vinyl tells the story of the music business in New York City in the 1970s (with flashbacks to the 1960s) and is based partly on Jagger’s memories.
It’s a great idea, but is it great TV? Judging from the nearly two-hour pilot – which was screened before a packed audience at the Ozenbar in Tel Aviv last week, underscoring how the lines between television and movies have blurred – it is, if you’re a Scorsese fan.
Scorsese directed and produced this first episode, just as he did with the previous series on which he worked, the early 20th-century crime drama Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese has always loved rock music, and he directed the concert film/documentaries The Last Waltz with The Band and Shine a Light with The Rolling Stones. Rock music has often been prominent on Scorsese soundtracks. For years, Jagger and Scorsese talked about making a movie based on Jagger’s experiences, but a few years ago they realized that television, not film, was the best medium to bring this idea to life, and that was the genesis of this 10-part series.
Vinyl is a highly entertaining mixture of classic rock, punk, glam rock and funk; original music in these styles; hard-partying anti-heroes; and the violence and organized crime that have always hovered on the edges of commercial music.
It plays like a Scorsese film from start to finish and is particularly reminiscent of two of his films – the recent Wolf of Wall Street, which detailed the excesses of those at the top of the financial food chain, and the last act of Goodfellas, in which Henry Hill goes on a cocaine binge, descending into paranoia as he goes about his daily routine.
Scorsese’s anti-hero this time is Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale, who has been wonderful in dozens of movies and television shows. You may not know his name, but you know his face. He usually plays a loudmouth, sometimes an obnoxious one, at other times, a lovable guy. He was Jasmine’s sister’s uncouth boyfriend in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, but my favorite role of his was as the hot dog salesman who wouldn’t shut up and provided much-need comic relief in The Station Agent. Here, he gets his first highprofile leading role, and he runs with it. He’s so convincing and he loses himself so completely in the character that you will be able to ignore his distractingly terrible 1970s shag haircut. He has to make us care about a guy who is so obsessed with success that he will do anything, and most of the time he succeeds.
Finestra has built a music company, American Century Records, that runs the gamut from hard rock to bubblegum pop (including the music of Donny Osmond, whose songs play but who is not seen). When the movie opens, Richie is going through a rough week of negotiations with uptight German lawyers from Polygram, who want to buy it. He needs to be clear-headed, but he’s anything but. His buddies, who are partners in the company, support him and are great foils, especially Zak Yankovich, who is played in the most winning performance of all, by Ray Romano.
Richie rushes back and forth between Germany and New York, his Manhattan crash pad and his Connecticut mansion, hookers and his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), a former party-girl who is now an immaculately groomed suburban mom. Exhausted, he needs a break badly but can’t take one. Whenever there is a crisis, he has to deal with it, and he spends a great deal of time tending to a radio executive “Buck” Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay), who is suffering from full-blown cocaine psychosis. This was the era of payola, when large cash payments from the record companies to radio stations determined which records the DJs played.
In flashbacks, we see how Richie, who grew up loving jazz and blues, got into the pop music business, grooming a serious black musician, Lester (Ato Essandoh), into a reluctant pop star.
Other story lines focus on Richie’s employees, particularly Jamie (Juno Temple), an ambitious assistant. Her desk is a virtual pharmacy, and she keeps the office going with every manner of drug. She also discovers Nasty Bitz, a punk band modeled on the Sex Pistols, whose lead singer, Kip, is played by Jagger’s son, James Jagger, a young stunner whose mother is Jerry Hall (soon to be the fourth Mrs. Rupert Murdoch, if you keep track of that sort of thing). While most of the executives are either stoned or burnt out or both, she starts grooming this band, whose sound is so raw that in live performances, audiences are inspired to beat up the musicians.
The series also features real rock star characters, played by young actors, among them members of Led Zeppelin in this first episode, and Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Alice Cooper and David Bowie on upcoming episodes.
No expense has been spared, and the cinematography, production design and effects are much higher quality than in the majority of television series.
Two possible problems going forward are that the self-absorbed Richie is a difficult character to root for.
The same could be said of Tony Soprano, Don Draper of Mad Men or Walter White of Breaking Bad, but there was a certain ineffable quality in each of these men that allowed us to see ourselves in them, no matter what they did. Whether or not Richie Finestra has that remains to be seen.
The episode ends with a gripping finale, to put it mildly, and you will want to tune in again to see what happens next.
For music lovers, the series is a must. For all others, it’s dazzling and fun, with all the excitement – and violence – of a Scorsese film.