1970s music rocks new TV series

Terence Winter (clockwise from bottom left), the show runner of HBO's Vinyl, with cast members Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde and Bobby Cannavale.
Terence Winter (clockwise from bottom left), the show runner of HBO's Vinyl, with cast members Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde and Bobby Cannavale.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Vinyl evolved from a movie project by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, and Scorsese directs the two-hour pilot

NEW YORK • When the viewer meets Richie Finestra, the protagonist of the new HBO drama Vinyl, his situation is dire. It is 1973 and this beleaguered record-label executive, played by Bobby Cannavale, has lost faith in the music industry, squandered his sobriety and gotten himself in serious trouble.

Yet when he seems to have hit bottom, he glimpses new inspiration not far from the shabby downtown Manhattan intersection where he has gone to buy cocaine: a raucous rock concert at the Mercer Arts Center, being played by an up-and-coming band called New York Dolls.

It is no accident that, from its opening minutes, Vinyl, with its mix of grimy reality, nostalgia for 1970s New York and a throbbing rock 'n' roll soundtrack, feels like a Martin Scorsese movie.

Scorsese, the Academy Award- winning film-maker, is an executive producer of the series and directed its two-hour pilot episode.

Should that pedigree feel insufficient for a narrative about bad behaviour, existential crises and the redemptive power of music, Scorsese is joined on Vinyl by Mick Jagger, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones and a fellow executive producer on the series, which debuts on Feb 14.

With a cast that includes Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano and Juno Temple, and an aesthetic that mixes fictional characters with actors playing real-life music stars (such as David Bowie, Elvis Presley and Lou Reed), the series is ambitious, expensive and - to its creative team - the closest proposition to a sure thing this side of a Led Zeppelin reunion.

As its show runner, Terence Winter, said, when he was invited to participate in the project: "I remember pitching it to myself and going, 'All right: Martin Scorsese. Mick Jagger. Rock 'n' roll. I don't care what it is - there's no way I wouldn't watch this.'"

For HBO, the network of Game Of Thrones, Sesame Street, Jon Stewart and Bill Simmons, Vinyl is an important addition to its line-up: a way to keep people like Scorsese and Jagger in its talent stable, and to guard against encroachments from cable competitors such as Showtime and streaming services such as Netflix, which are preparing 1970s period series of their own.

To succeed, Vinyl will have to fulfill the promise of its sexy subject matter and its superstar producers. And it will have to find a coherent, compelling narrative in a heartfelt if abstract idea about how music defined people's lives in that era.

As Scorsese explained earlier this month at the Television Critics Association press tour, to have grown up with rock 'n' roll means "you see life around you played to that music". The goal for Vinyl, he said, is "that music becomes part of the narrative, but the whole narrative is like a piece of music".

By focusing on the 1970s in Vinyl, Jagger explained in an interview, the series could depict a thrilling, uncertain time in music, when a declining metropolis provided a crucible for punk, disco and hip-hop.

"New York was broke," he said. "You've got a lot of poverty, a lot of rich people and a lot of disparity - all these scenes going on against a background of quite tough and grimy cityscapes."

Also, he added: "I forgot about the silly clothes. Some of them were ridiculous and some were kind of sharp."

Vinyl was planned as a movie, called The Long Play, that Scorsese and Jagger had been developing since at least 2000, and which would have followed characters in the music business over several decades and cultural eras.

Winter was among the screenwriters who worked on The Long Play. But in 2008, he said, "the world economy dropped out and suddenly the phone stopped ringing".

"The studio was like, 'Eh, this is maybe not the time to do a three-hour epic period piece,'" said Winter. He reshaped it as a cable TV pilot.

For their male lead, Richie Finestra, the angst-ridden head of American Century Records, the producers honed in on Cannavale, who won an Emmy playing short-fused mobster Gyp Rosetti on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Wilde, a veteran of TV shows such as House and The O.C., plays Devon, who is Richie's wife and a one-time denizen of New York's decadent art scene.

Romano plays Richie's record- label partner Zak Yankovich. Jagger's son James plays the frontman of an unseasoned proto-punk band.

Winter recalled explaining to Scorsese the difference between a mini-series and an ongoing series. "I said, 'A mini-series is a finite amount - six, eight, 10 episodes, and that's it,'" Winter said. "'A series is, you do the pilot, and then it continues.'"

Slipping into an affectionate imitation of Scorsese's rapid-fire delivery, he continued: "He goes, 'So the pilot is the movie, and what happens in the series is after the movie? I get it. I'll do the movie, and then you do the series.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline '1970s music rocks new TV series'. Print Edition | Subscribe