Welcome to New York, 1973: The spirit of rock & roll is a cesspool of money, drugs and bodily fluids. It’s the same unholy trinity that fuels Vinyl, the excellent and hotly awaited new HBO tale of the Seventies music business, executive-produced by the glimmer twins of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, along with The Sopranos‘ Terence Winter. The mobbed-up record labels are trying to squeeze every last drop of blood they can get from what’s left of the Sixties. On the streets, punk and hip-hop are just starting to fester. Up in the boardrooms, it’s business as usual – a promo hustler drops by to visit his favorite radio DJ, giving him the hundred-dollar handshake, except by now the payola nut is up to five grand and a gram. The promo man and the DJ snort a few lines of “Bolivian dancing dust” off the record on the turntable, while Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” plays. That perky little hit has never sounded so sordid. Can you dig it?
Vinyl gives the Seventies New York rock scene the Goodfellas treatment. Bobby Cannavale stars as the Henry Hill figure: Richie Finestra, head honcho of struggling American Century Records and a veteran of the label wars of the early Sixties. As he recalls, “When I started in this business, rock & roll was defined like this: Two Jews and a guinea recording four schvartzes on a single track. Now it’s changed so much it’s not even recognizable as the thing people used to be so afraid of.”
He’s a racket boy who worked his way up in the New York clubs, bragging, “You think you work hard? Try scraping Chubby Checker’s vomit off the inside of a toilet stall.” But now his label is falling apart; nobody knows what’s going to hit big next. He wants to sell out to Polygram, but first he needs to sign some heavy hitters, so he has his people scrounging around for the almost-famous. James Jagger, Mick’s 30-year-old son, is priceless as the singer for the up-and-coming proto-punks the Nasty Bits. Meanwhile, Finestra’s partying takes a toll on his marriage to Olivia Wilde, a former Factory model turned into a bored suburban housewife. She meets a Nico-style scenester at a party, who coos, “Andy asked for you just the other night! Lou was with us.”
Vinyl uses the gritty details of Seventies rock culture to tell the story, like the moment when a room of jaded label hacks sit around listening to a record from this weird new pop group from Sweden named Abba. (“The music’s garbage, but I’d fuck the blonde.” “Can you beg in Swedish?”) A cardboard cutout of Rod Stewart in the corner looks on sadly, as if he wishes he could warn them the future will be like nothing they imagined.
The show has a great sense of American sleaze – the Scorsese-directed premiere episode revels in the petty criminal details of how nickels and dimes get cranked out of the old-school music machine, whether that means dumping cutouts or kneecapping artists who get out of line.
Passionate music fans rub elbows with gangsters and killers – yet sometimes they’re the same people. The weak spots come when actors try to impersonate real-life rock stars, as in the clumsy scenes where Cannavale argues with Led Zeppelin. The guy playing Robert Plant looks more like Dave Mustaine after raiding Dee Snider’s wig vault, and Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, legendary as a terrifying hulk of brute force, is portrayed as looking more like a crankier Phil Collins.
1973 was also the year Scorsese dropped Mean Streets, the film that made his bones as a director and changed all the rules of Seventies cinema, especially in the way it used rock & roll to tell the story. Mean Streets was also the movie that fused the genius of both Scorsese and Jagger, with the Stones on the soundtrack – the classic scene where Robert De Niro glowers in the club to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
So this is a shady world Scorsese and Jagger know well. In one fantastic nightmare sequence, Cannavale scores blow downtown, then goes to the Mercer Arts Center to see the New York Dolls play “Personality Crisis,” as the violence of the music and the madness of the fans make him sweat his brains out through his leather jacket. It’s a perfect soundtrack to the personality crisis that’s going on in his soul – and also for the state of rock & roll. Paint it black, baby.