For true believers rock 'n' roll isn't mere music. It's a state of unnamable ecstasy, a romantic impulse that ensnares its victims and leaves them helpless. It elicits an uncut, involuntary emotional response, even when its less savory side makes romanticism seem laughable.
This is the tension that Vinyl tries to capture, and it succeeds at an impressive clip. The brainchild of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, the new HBO series set in the early-'70s New York rock world pits the rebellious idealism of guitar and drums against the fact that the record business has always been a nasty one. (Or, as A Tribe Called Quest aptly put it, "Industry rule No. 4,080/Record company people are shady"). In Vinyl you can sell your soul to rock 'n' roll and fight the devils of temptation and indulgence, even as you claim the music is the only thing that matters. That's show business.
The show's heart, soul and cocaine-stopped nose belong to one Richie Finestra, played by the ever-volcanic Bobby Cannavale. In the two-hour pilot episode, directed by Scorsese, Richie is in a shaky state of addiction recovery and on the verge of cashing in. PolyGram wants to buy his American Century label and make rich men of Richie, his promo whiz Zak (a terrific Ray Romano) and his head of sales, Skip (J.C. McKenzie). That would be fine with Richie's wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), who has made the transition from Andy Warhol muse to fairly contented Connecticut housewife.
Of course it all falls apart, in a rush of music, murder, drugs, and, in the spirit of the show's sprightly mix of fact and fiction, the dusty collapse of the University Hotel and Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village (during a New York Dolls show, no less). Richie gets up, dusts himself off and quickly adapts to his new life as a particularly entertaining train wreck.
Despite Jagger's role as co-creator/executive producer, the Vinyl soundtrack features less Rolling Stones than most Scorsese movies. No matter; you'll see and hear plenty of other artists, from the musical interludes with actors playing Little Richard, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin to storylines involving Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin.
Vinyl shows no fear in sampling the lives and work of the superstars, but the more creative moments cast light on more neglected corners, like when we learn the kid driving barbershop patrons nuts by juggling different records is none other than the underappreciated hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc.
The show carries an impressive TV pedigree. Terrence Winter, who created Boardwalk Empire and wrote many a Sopranos episode, is a co-creator; Allen Coulter, another Sopranos/Boardwalk veteran, directed two of the five episodes made available to critics. They share many of Scorsese's favorite themes, including deeply repressed guilt, anguished manhood and the constant allure of chaos when stability just seems too boring.
Vinyl, to its credit, is rarely stable, and never boring. You can feel Scorsese pushing to squeeze as much as possible into the pilot, including a grisly crime scene that could have been cribbed from GoodFellas. He's one of the true believers, in cinema and in rock, and the first two hours of Vinyl are stamped with his unmistakable energy, the whooshing camera work and drop-dead music cues and boys being boys. The subsequent episodes can't quite match the pace and intensity, even if they do amp up the chaos. At times Vinyl feels like a rocker's take on The Long Good Friday, the classic English gangster film in which a prosperous criminal (Bob Hoskins) endures a Job-like series of calamities. Richie is a prolific creator of his own bad luck.
Vinyl is set in 1973, the same year that brought Scorsese's breakthrough film Mean Streets (two perfectly employed Stones songs: "Tell Me" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash"). The period was also a fulcrum of volatility in pop music, with punk and glam entering the public consciousness and hip-hop right around the corner. The rules were crumbling like that building on Mercer Street; Richie's mandate to his A&R staff echoes the Modernist credo of Ezra Pound: Make it new.
And, preferably, cheap. Vinyl wrings high drama from the eternal and eternally fraught marriage of art and commerce. It's the conflict that wallops a rising blues singer (Ato Assendoh) who won't bow down to his mobbed-up record label. It lurks around every corner of Vinyl. It challenges the true believers to keep believing in a business driven by dreamers and crooks. It's only rock 'n' roll but they love it.