Judging by the rapturous reviews for “Vinyl,” HBO’s new series on the drug-stoked collision of rock, punk and hip-hop on the grimy streets of 1973 New York, the series is clearly the sort of thing enthusiasts of a certain era have been waiting for for a very long time. I mean, Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger collaborating on an unfettered trip through pop music’s inside game? How could it be anything but spot-on and terrific?
Well, the short answer is: by not being as genuinely unfettered as it needs to be, if giving an accurate taste of the scene is its primary objective.
Sunday night’s two-hour premiere introduced us to Bobby Cannavale, heretofore a reliable character actor (“Will & Grace,” “Boardwalk Empire”) playing the lead role of Richie Finestra, owner of American Century Records. Richie’s a main man on the pop scene, with a looming deal to sign on Led Zeppelin and simultaneously close a sweet payday of a deal with a bunch of German investors. Naturally, complications ensue. Like, well, a murder, falling off the booze-and-coke wagon, and screwing over Zeppelin’s legendary/notorious manager, Peter Grant.
The story goes that Jagger has wanted to do a film about this era for quite a while (1973 coincides with the post “Exile on Main Street” Rolling Stones at their apogee, but the boys are not a factor in the action here). His relationship with Scorsese, who directed the Stones’ 2008 documentary/concert film “Shine a Light,” evolved from a one-off feature film to a premium cable series when screenwriter Terence Winter got involved.
Winter, who wrote for “The Sopranos” and ran “Boardwalk Empire,” achieved unfettered, platinum-tier debauchery status when he collaborated with Scorsese on 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In terms of a zenith of in-your-face drug consumption, nudity, Caligulan hedonism and wall-to-wall profanity, “The Wolf” remains in its own special orbit. And that story was about a bunch of lily white Wall Street con men. (My favorite “Wolf” story involves a Jewish friend taking his 84-year-old mother to a Christmas Day screening of the movie before ordering Chinese and getting whiplash from the opening scene, where one of our heroes snorts a line of cocaine off a, uh, young woman’s derriere.)
What’s missing from the first two hours of “Vinyl” is the pitch of unbridled excess that made “Wolf” a deeply guilty pleasure. As depicted by Winter and Scorsese, the Wall St. boys partied with a fever that Led Zeppelin in their day could only dream of. But “Vinyl” presents Winter and Scorsese with the opportunity, and an entirely legitimate one at that, to remind the world of who invented the term “party like a rock star.”
The same incongruous restraint applies to Scorsese’s direction of the two-hour pilot. Fans of his work, from “Taxi Driver” through “GoodFellas,” “Casino” and “Wolf,” delight in his frenetic, adrenalized camera and editing style. More or less standard scenes — entrances, first meetings — are edited with long flowing shots intercut with closeups and crosscuts, some from disorienting, omniscient angles. The visual style is a corollary to the rock music Scorsese so often uses as a soundtrack. (Here’s the opening of “The Departed” as a classic example.)
But in “Vinyl” the camera work and editing is far more restrained and pedestrian than in his features. Maybe it’s a concession to the smaller screen in American family rooms or an audience thought to be more familiar and comfortable with the conventional film style of “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.”
Whatever the rationale, the conventional approach induces a static quality in too many scenes that need an underlying electrical current of impatience, if only to spare Cannavale from having to carrying more dramatic weight than he is capable of. (No one will be comparing him to Leonardo DiCaprio.)
The opening episode of “Vinyl” felt most alive when it tipped over into the mortal combat of dangerously unbalanced egos, a Scorsese/Winter specialty. Particularly good were Andrew Dice Clay as a raging, almost feral owner of a group of radio stations vital to Richie’s marketing (i.e. payola) strategies. Also, Christopher Moser has one good scene as Zeppelin’s Peter Grant, one of the truly larger (literally) than life characters on rock’s historical landscape.
According to press hype, Olivia Wilde, playing Richie’s wife, a onetime party girl settled in to uneasy domestic contentment in the suburbs, will steadily become a major force in the story arc. This presumably will make her a bit of an echo of Carmela Soprano, a woman who also made a pact with the devil and had to accept the consequences.
Also notable in the cast are Ray Romano (!) as one of Richie’s drug-fueled executives and James Jagger — Mick’s kid — as lead singer of the punk rock band, The Nasty Bitz.
“Vinyl” has as much potential for riveting storytelling/moviemaking as any subject matter thrown up by TV in recent years. All the irresponsible, hedonistic insanity has a nostalgic appeal to fans of that generation, albeit mainly of a voyeuristic, “wannabe” quality. Moreover, the broader cultural impact of the standards set by pop stars of that era is substantial and entirely significant.
Complaining that the series doesn’t cut loose as fully as it should isn’t so much an argument for pumping outrageous debauchery into American homes as it is for the filmmakers to take up the challenge they’ve set for themselves. Namely, be honest and let us experience the world that created our rock idols.