HBO will air the premiere of Vinyl this Sunday. The series is set in the world of rock and roll in the 1970s when the industry was at the same kind of crossroads that Robert Johnson faced in the 20s. HBO’s Vinyl is run by the artists who lived through it, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and perennial master of mixing sound with vision Martin Scorsese, along with Terence Winter, whose work on Boardwalk Empire has been heavily and lovingly chronicled here. A lot of the words to this tune will be written by author Rich Cohen.
The first episode of Vinyl is a full length Martin Scorsese movie, a few minutes longer than Mean Streets or King of Comedy. It sets the scene and digs into the history of the characters and the world of rock n’ roll. It is structured like quite a few of Scorsese movies after Goodfellas, which works to set a firm foundation. Scorsese is also equally generous with the music, which comes from all genres.
The Scorsese artistry doesn’t end there. He puts a lot of detail into recreating New York City of the era, and there are parts of the pilot that look like it could have been found on the cutting room floor after Taxi Driver.
Rock music label owner Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale, is a long time music man. He has an ear that’s hungry for music and a nose with its own appetite. Finestra loosely parallels Marty Thau who managed the New York Dolls, who caught them at the Mercer Arts Center six months after he quit his job at Paramount Records. In Vinyl, Finestra is about to give up ownership of American Century Records, the label he founded.
Radio rock was getting stale in the seventies. The bands were rich and the A&R guys were lazy. Donny Osmond sold more singles than Yes, ELP, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull combined and stages were getting crowded with extravagant sets. The New York Dolls, David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Sylvain Sylvain, Billy Murcia, and Arthur Kane Jr., hit Finestra like a ton of bricks and by the second episode he’s like a cadet who is “Lost in the Jungle.”
Finestra and his partners deal with a contract with Led Zeppelin, the encroaching domination by the Dutch Polygram label, good sales, bad artists, near suicides, full homicides, and just who a coffee girl might have to blow to get a gig as an A&R professional. Along the way, HBO treats us to some great parties, good weed and bad deals.
When Jagger started out, the Rolling Stones were blues purists. You can see this in the sad transformation of Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) into the kind of singer who could get booties shaking at the Peppermint Lounge. Jagger’s son James plays Kip Stevens, a punk rock singer for fictional band Nasty Bits, the other side of the musical spectrum. Coffee and coke girl Jamie Vine, played by Juno Temple, says they offer an early clue to a new direction, as the Beatles might have put it in A Hard Day’s Night.
The cast is stellar. Richie Finestra’s wife, Devon is played by Olivia Wilde, as part Stepford Wife and part Andy Warhol protégé. The head of promotions at American Century Zak Yankovich is played by Ray Romano and everybody can love that. The inventor of the hundred-dollar handshake has a wife that only Peter Boyle could love, though she’s still less irritating than Patricia Heaton.
Max Casella, who played Bennie on The Sopranos, plays Julius “Julie” Silver, the head of A&R of American Century. By the second episode we see that he is Finestra’s biggest enabler and we are rooting for every encouragement he offers and snort he accepts. Casella is the guy who has to get bands ready to be heard over the racket they make. He’s brutal and you just love him, even if he just doesn’t quite get it. Hey, rock reviewers in the seventies thought the New York Dolls sounded like lawnmowers.
It might take a minute to place Andrew Dice Clay in his turn as the asshole radio station syndicate owner Frank “Buck” Rogers, but by his last scene in the first episode he is completely unrecognizable. Promotion man Joe Corso, played by Bo Dietl, shows what fun can be had on a three-day coke binge. Annie Parisse plays Andrea Zito, who used to work and play with Finestra until she got poached by Jackie Jervis, played by Ken Marino. Daniel J. Watts funks it up as Hannibal.
Vinyl will also portray some of the musical artists of the day. We go for a drive with Karen Carpenter. Robert Goulet, played by Matt Bogart, brings holiday cheer and Alice Cooper, played by Dustin Ingram, takes it away.
Vinyl is exciting and fun. It blends the humor with the drama and the acting is nuanced and tight. Though there are a few anachronisms, it is pretty faithful to the times. It moves at a good pace, with four on the floor, it’s got a good beat and you just might dance to it.
“The Pilot” episode was directed by Martin Scorsese, from a story by Rich Cohen & Mick Jagger & Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter, and teleplay by Terence Winter and George Mastras. Vinyl premieres on February 14th at 9 pm.