Sex, drugs, cursing, violence, New York City, the 1970s, mirrors smudged with coke residue, the Brill Building, a label acquisition, racial epithets, booze, broads, orgies, cooked books, deals made under the table, the enticing thought of Ray Romano vacuuming up lines of coke with his architecturally handsome nose, the sound of a skull cracking, cash stuffed in envelopes and record sleeves, Brooklyn accents, murder, a punk brawl, a trashed living room, and, finally, rock ‘n’ roll. There’s not much of an order of importance to the list of things crammed into Vinyl, the new HBO show brought to you by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), and journalist and author Rich Cohen (The Record Men, Tough Jews). Vinyl centers on the music industry—but all too often the drama places more weight on anything but the music.
Directed by Scorsese, Vinyl‘s two-hour pilot opens with Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the relapsed drug addict and founder of a fictional ailing label called American Century, stumbling into a New York Dolls show at the crumbling Mercer Building in August 1973. Finestra has hit a low point, and the rest of the episode delves into the recent and not-so-recent events leading up to his Damascus moment. American Century, which Finestra turned into a hit maker thanks to his “golden ear,” is preparing for a buyout at the hands of Polygram. Finestra, American Century head of promotions Zak Yankovich (Romano), and head of sales Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie) meet with Polygram executives in Germany to go over the paperwork. It gives Finestra an opportunity to give a curse-strewn monologue about his label’s meteoric rise and fall. The looming buyout at the hands of Germans also opens the doors for plenty of cracks about Nazis—Scorsese never met an ethnic slur he didn’t like.
Finestra is also trying to secure a deal with Led Zeppelin to make American Century look more attractive to Polygram. Back at American Century’s headquarters the A&R team scrambles to make their own deals to enliven the label’s roster (Robert Goulet and Donny Osmond are the primary punching bags) and assistant Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) thinks she’s busted through the glass ceiling after taking a demo tape from the leader of a fictional punk band called the Nasty Bitz (Jagger’s son James plays the lead singer). The Zeppelin deal falls through and other things go to shit as Finestra seeks out the bottle against the wishes of his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), whose big, watery eyes say more than much of the dialogue she’s given.
Finestra’s bender leads him to the Mercer Building, which falls apart at the hands of the New York Dolls. It’s a blunt metaphor for Finestra’s reawakening. He opens the second episode by punching out his American Century partners, tearing up the buyout contract in front of the Polygram executives, and reclaiming his label for the sake of the music. It’s less a radical move than a narrative match thrown at a powder keg, one that can sustain explosiveness for an entire season—or, really, a whole show.
Finestra is blessed with more than a golden ear. He’s got historical hindsight on his side. While stuck in nighttime traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway he orders his driver to head back to the city and is immediately drawn to the funk groove emanating from a high-rise. It’s a hip-hop party thrown by the genre’s real originator, DJ Kool Herc, of course, but Finestra’s attraction flies in the face of logic; Dan Charnas’s engrossing account of the business side of hip-hop, The Big Payback, lays out how the genre’s struggle to get many labels to give it them time of day spilled over into the 1980s. But Finestra’s instinct to follow his ears toward the beats is merely a narrative point to bring him back into the life of Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), the broken blues musician who was Finestra’s first client. Still it’s one of many moments that makes Finestra look like the Forrest Gump of the music industry.
Factual flubs are par for the course with any work of fiction based on a well-documented series of events, but history suffocates Vinyl. Sure, certain moments are rearranged to suit the show—in reality the Mercer Building collapsed during the day, not at night, and it happened a week before Kool Herc hosted his first hip-hop party; on Vinyl Finestra overhears Herc several days before the walls of the Mercer fall around him. However the more omnipresent past isn’t chronological but canonized—it’s the musical figures who have transcended their corporeal selves to become mythical ideas in the public. No cinematic hand could make the actor hired to play, say, Robert Plant appear like anything more than an avatar. When Vinyl builds a fictional canon it’s able to breathe; when it’s bound to our musical heroes it crumbles like the Mercer Building.
Vinyl Sundays at 8 PM on HBO