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HBO's '70s Rock Series 'Vinyl' Sings A Familiar Tune

Bobby Cannavale stars as record executive Richie Finestra in the new series <em>Vinyl.</em>
Bobby Cannavale stars as record executive Richie Finestra in the new series Vinyl.

HBO's music industry drama Vinyl comes at you like a classic rock song you can't get out of your head.

Powerful. Emotional. But also kind of predictable.

It's obvious from one of the earliest moments in the first episode, when Bobby Cannavale's out-of-control record company owner Richie Finestra stumbles into a smoky club circa 1971 and finds the New York Dolls.

Director-producer Martin Scorsese does an amazing job re-creating the anarchic spirit of the time, with drugged-out fans and sexually available groupies littering the steps up to the main stage. As Finestra stands with his mouth agape, the lipstick-wearing band tears into a note-perfect version of The Dolls' early '70s single "Personality Crisis."

Peering through a haze of cocaine and fatigue, Finestra looks like he's found God. But it's a scene we've seen in rock 'n' roll movies many times over — this time, presented from the perspective of the record company man.

That's the problem with HBO's Vinyl, which debuts Sunday as HBO's odd Valentine's Day gift to viewers. Despite its familiarity, the show expertly re-creates the time of peak gonzo in the record industry — when everybody from musicians and record company executives to radio DJs and record store employees was swimming in cocaine, payola and backroom swindles.

Emmy winner Cannavale is ferociously magnetic as Finestra — the blunt, talented founder and president of American Century records. By 1973, he's a successful power broker trying to kick a mountainous cocaine habit and sell his company to the European conglomerate PolyGram.

But even as he is poised to sign over his company, Finestra can't help ruminating on the state of the music industry in his typical in-your-face fashion.

"When I started in this business, rock 'n' roll was defined like this: two Jews and a guinea recording four schvartzes on a single track," he says. "Now, it's changed so much, it's not even recognizable as the thing people used to be so afraid of."

That bums out Finestra, an adrenaline junkie with the perfect ear for blockbuster bands. To tell his story, Vinyl takes viewers behind the scenes of the record industry in the 1970s, when glam rock, punk, disco and rap were all just starting to emerge.

It was also when "record men" were brazenly breaking the law to fatten their wallets, paying off record store managers and radio disc jockeys to pump up their most important artists.

"Hyman Weiss invented the $100 handshake back in the '50s," Finestra tells the viewer about bribing disc jockeys — the specialty of his partner, Zak Yankovich, played by Ray Romano.

"By 1971, Zak had raised it to $5,000 and a gram of Bolivian dancing dust," the record company owner adds. "What, you thought songs only got played because they were good?"

Guys like Weiss — who was an actual producer and record company owner in the '50s and '60s — were the generation before operators like Finestra, whose American Century label is floundering with acts like Donny Osmond, Savoy Brown and Robert Goulet.

All this detail comes from an authoritative source: Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, who described during a press conference how he developed the idea for Vinyl with his longtime friend, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese.

"I had an idea years ago that I took to Marty and we tried to develop as a movie," Jagger said. "And it was a very sprawling idea. [So] when TV series came online and started to become interesting, respectable and moneymaking, we decided to make a TV series out of it." Spoken like a rock star turned film and TV producer who once attended the London School of Economics.

What works here are the details. Especially in the first episode, Vinyl re-creates the danger of '70s-era New York before Times Square got Disneyfied. We see young actors as compelling versions of classic stars like the New York Dolls, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper.

And the show slips those talented doppelgangers right next to fictional stars who feel like they could have existed back then, including a Sly Stone-style funk singer named Hannibal and a bratty protopunk band called The Nasty Bits.

As epitomized by Finestra, the record company guys are unscrupulous glad-handers, distracting artists with drugs and groupies while trying to shave points off their royalty percentages in hastily signed contracts.

But all this quality — cooked up with another executive producer, Terence Winter, and author Rich Cohen — services a story that still feels too predictable.

Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde in the HBO series <em>Vinyl</em>.
Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde in the HBO series Vinyl.

Cannavale's Finestra is a coke-snorting, self-obsessed record man who lays waste to his personal life in search of the perfect artist. Olivia Wilde is mostly underused as Finestra's wife, Devon, a former actress and model stuck cleaning up after her husband in a decidedly male-centered story.

In fact, Vinyl sometimes seems like a Frankenstein's monster cobbled together from the influences of its producers. There's the gritty '70s New York of Scorsese's Mean Streets, the rock 'n' roll rags-to-riches story from Jagger's own life, and the damaged loner searching for fulfillment who resembles the lead character from Winter's previous series, Boardwalk Empire.

Still, for those who admire the days when most music was bought in a record store, this series satisfies a certain nostalgia.

Just don't include in that group its rock star executive producer, who admits he doesn't even listen to records anymore.

"I never play vinyl, personally," Jagger said, drawing chuckles from journalists at the press conference. "But all my children love it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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