‘Vinyl’: Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger Show the Rock ‘n’ Roll Life of the ’70s

Bobby Cannavale
Vinyl, Bobby Cannavale

What happens when the most famous living director and the biggest rock star on the planet join forces for a passion project nearly 20 years in the making? We’re about to find out. HBO’s highly anticipated new series Vinyl—about the music industry during the 1970s in New York City—has the almost laughably sterling pedigree of being executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger. “The first time I was sitting in a room with them, I thought I was hallucinating,” recalls Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, also an executive producer. “Either of those guys, I’m sold. You put them together? It’s even better—like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.”

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Albeit a lot less sweet. The show revolves around the tumultuous world of antihero Richie Finestra (Boardwalk Empire’s Bobby Cannavale), a charismatic but mercurial record-label president. Once renowned for his golden ear, the former cocaine addict has settled into a state of suburban ennui in Greenwich, Connecticut, with his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde)—she was an Andy Warhol muse before getting straight and having kids—and is on the verge of selling his now-faltering company. Over the course of the Scorsese-directed two-hour pilot, a disastrous chain of events annihilates almost every aspect of Richie’s personal and professional life, effectively hitting a giant red reset button. “It’s Shakespearean in a way, about a king who’s lost his kingdom but refuses to let go,” Cannavale says. “He’s rising from the ashes with a new sense of purpose, but tremendous obstacles are thrown in his face.”

For starters, Richie’s business partners, including shifty right-hand man Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) and past-his-prime head of A&R Julius Silver (Max Casella), will be none too pleased at the boss man’s sudden change of tune. “There will be a lot of conflict as they react to his reawakening,” Winter says. And then there’s the matter of Richie’s imperiled sobriety, plus legal troubles, run-ins with money-hungry mobsters and his wobbly marriage. “Richie and Devon have a deep connection that’s very passionate and volatile,” Wilde explains. “It can’t be dismissed easily.”

Naturally, all this action plays out against the backdrop of the raucous music scene. Substance abuse is rampant, as are sexism and racism, demonstrated chiefly through characters like Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), a young A&R assistant at the label more interested in discovering talent than taking lunch orders from her male coworkers, and Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), an African-American blues musician who has a complicated history with Richie. “This is set a year after Mad Men ends. Things are changing in society, but not that much,” Winter says.

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In addition, viewers will receive a constant download of the rock gods ruling the airwaves at the time, as well as front-row tickets to the rise of disco and punk. (James Jagger does daddy proud with his turn as the petulant, magnetic lead singer of fictional band The Nasty Bits.) Vinyl captures that rapidly evolving sound through an assortment of original songs written expressly for the drama and genuine tracks from the era. Unsurprisingly, Jagger—who first approached Scorsese two decades ago with the idea of collaborating on a film about the rock-and-roll universe, which eventually developed into this—has had plenty of input. “It’s been invaluable to lending the music authenticity,” Winter says. “He’s a musical encyclopedia, and he’s been on the front lines of this business since the 1960s. There’s nobody I could think of who’d have clearer insight, because he lived this.”

Scorsese’s signatures can also be felt heavily throughout, particularly when it comes to the obsessively re-created period detail of a gritty, pre-Disneyfied Manhattan on the brink of bankruptcy. “We filmed one scene where a ’70s-style bus passes us in the background,” Wilde says. “During a break, I went and looked inside and there were all these extras dressed head-to-toe in vintage clothing, reading vintage newspapers with vintage trash wrappers at their feet. The bus just whizzes by in the shot! That’s the kind of thing providing texture to this. People are going to feel like they’re watching a film.”

Hopefully, it’s one they’ll want to revisit week after week. The first season covers about four months of Richie’s journey in 1973. If the series gets picked up for future installments, the story could span decades. Cannavale, for one, would be onboard. “Man, I just love this part,” he says. “I’ve done cop shows and hospital shows before, and nothing against the tried and true, but I’m really glad I’m not on one right now. This is a totally different animal, and as long as Terry and Marty and Mick are involved, that’s exactly as long as I want to be on it. Why would I go anywhere else?”

Vinyl, Premieres Sunday, Feb. 14, 9/8c, HBO