HBO’s ‘Vinyl’: When records, and the folks who made them, were still king

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Bobby Cannavale in "Vinyl

How do you know you are in a Martin Scorsese movie? Look for the following:

  • A massive coke snort in the back of the limo (the first of many, so many that one wonders if it’s a product placement).
  • A voice-over letting us know backstory we would have to otherwise infer (or learn from another character).
  • Loving shots of recreated 1970s downtown New York, all underbelly and tagged subway cars.
  • The worship of old blues, 50s R&B and primeval early rock ‘n’ roll, to the point where several songs are given their own here-is-the-artist-in-the-imagination-of-the-main-character scenes.
  • An act of savage violence that isn’t completely necessary to the plot but acts as a catharsis for a central character.
  • Mick Jagger’s son in a slightly mystifying role.

A few of these apply to any number of his films, but if the answer is “all of the above,” you are in “Vinyl,” the new 10-episode series airing on HBO, the two-hour pilot for which airs Sunday. Written by “Vinyl” showrunner Terence Winter (“Sopranos,” Boardwalk Empire”), the pilot was directed by Scorsese, who co-created the show with Winter, Rich Cohen and Mick Jagger.

Bobby Cannavale in "Vinyl

Bobby Cannavale in “Vinyl

‘Vinyl” follows Richie Finestra (Bobby Canavale), whose record label American Century is in a bit of a transitional moment. It is 1973 and Finestra is ready to sell the label to the German multinational PolyGram.

But A.C. is struggling: they don’t have the next big thing, nor do they have Led Zeppelin, who they have promised Poly they will sign.

Finestra has the gorgeous wife (Olivia Wilde), the mansion in Connecticut and a few entertaining underlings: Ray Romano is the radio promotions guy Zak Yankovich, prone to slipping some $20 bills and an eight ball of coke to DJs, Max Casella is A&R chief Julie Silver (who we learn passed on Abba) and J.C. MacKenzie is Skip Fontaine, the sort of accountant who can make a load of albums disappear into the East River for tax purposes. (Andrew Dice Clay, of whom I never tire in dramatic roles, is hypnotic as a nasty radio executive.)

The pilot takes its extremely padded time following two threads: where Richie is now (struggling to figure out what his next step is) and how he got there (managing, then screwing over, a young blues musician (Ato Essandoh); doing time at a label cranking out the ’50s R&B Essandoh’s character called “kiddie music”).

The Nasty Bits in 'Vinyl"

The Nasty Bits in ‘Vinyl”

Elsewhere, an ambitious Century gofer (Juno Temple) —  who seems responsible for maintaining the label’s stash of every drug you could possibly want — decides to back a young punk band called the Nasty Bits, whose (bafflingly British) lead singer is played by Jagger’s son James.

(This bit of casting feels just as weird as that time Adrien Brody went from Queens to England to discover punk rock via the Who in “Summer of Sam?” Anyone remember that? Yeah, probably not.)

While the New York Dolls were destroying stages at that point, ’73 is slightly early for this kind of punk. That said, in perhaps the show’s only ingenious move, the Nasty Bits’ music is that of Jack Ruby, a brilliant proto-punk act who were indeed a few years ahead of their time.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of “Vinyl,” except that for every trashy moment that connects (or is at least vaguely entertaining), there are a dozen more that are cringe-worthy Scorsese by-numbers. (Not to mention the egregious coincidences: Ritchie’s limo driver JUST HAPPENS to drive him by a party where DJs JUST HAPPEN to be cutting up records in a way awfully reminiscent of what would become hip-hop.)

Much the like the casino scenes in “Casino,” the stuff about how the record business worked back then is kind of fun (the music supervision, by increasingly legendary supervisor Randall Poster, is top-notch). But, also a bit like “Casino,” everything else (Finestra’s blues fetishism, his excesses, his marital woes) feels warmed over and dull.

There were also the sorts of factual errors that make music nerds nuts but your average “Entourage” fan won’t care about: No, the Mercer Arts Center did not collapse during a Dolls show (if it had, many, MANY more people would have died). Yes, Led Zep’s manager Peter Grant was about twice the size of the actor who played him. Would a British punk in 1973 really be THAT offended by hearing Slade in a record company office? Probably not. (I will just assume they couldn’t license “Dark Side of the Moon” or something of that ilk.)

But, just to zoom out for a bit, it’s my firm belief that pop music in general and rock music were topics about which it was massively difficult to write really good literary fiction.

There are a few decent exceptions: “A Visit from the Goon Squad” does a good job, “Ten Thousand Saints” (a good book which was turned into a movie almost nobody saw) was another.

Film and television doesn’t do such a hot job either. Sure, I enjoy Fox’s “Empire,” but that show is exceptionally canny about its balance of music-making, office politics and shooting people in the face.

(Small aside: You know who would love “Vinyl?” Christopher Moltasanti. Not only is he the ultimate Scorsese fan (recall what he shouts to Scorsese in an early Sopanros episode (“Marty! ‘Kundun’… I liked it!”) but he was the central character in “A Hit is a Hit,” maybe the best episode of television ever made about popular music.  That episode does nearly everything “Vinyl” tries to do but does it richer, smarter and funnier.)

Anyway, the scenes that work best in, say, “Almost Famous,” a movie I have softened on in my dotage, aren’t the scenes of the band on stage (though the performances are uniformly excellent) but of the main character as a FAN — the wonder on the kids’ face as he flips through his sisters records might be the movie’s most perfect moment of actually relating to the music: its wonder, its power.

Same with “Velvet Goldmine,” I movie I like probably far more than it deserves. As a movie about fandom, it is a blast. As a meditation on the actual power of glam, it is less strong.

“Vinyl” wants to be about both the business and the music, to focus equally on both the “suits” and the musicians. This feels like a mistake.  For example, how much less cringe-worthy (and braver) would “Vinyl” be if we never saw the actors playing Zeppelin or the Dolls? If we only heard a recording by the actual artist, not a warmed-over cover by some all-stars.

My favorite moment in “Vinyl” comes when Finestra sees the Dolls, one of the greatest rock bands that ever existed.

He isn’t dancing, he is too overwhelmed, he doesn’t want to miss a detail. It was the only time the felt experience of seeing and hearing truly great music felt authentic.

THAT is what having good ears is like.

 

 

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