Memory Motel: Martin Scorsese & Mick Jagger Live in A ’70s Wonderland in HBO’s Vinyl
Back in 1973, when the lavish and ludicrous rock & roll soap opera Vinyl is set, the show’s two creators were knee deep in the thick of things. Mick Jagger just finished the Rolling Stones’ third album for their own Rolling Stones Records — the weird, druggy Goat’s Head Soup — and Martin Scorsese released Mean Streets, a kinetic, visceral motion picture that numbered among its innovations a pioneering use of rock & roll on its soundtrack. If any two people could lay claim to rock & roll in the ’70s, it’s these two but neither man were immersed in grimy rock underworld of New York City in ’73, not in the way their hero Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is. They had their own lives — escorting his model wife Bianca around the globe, Jagger was at the peak of his jet-setting decadent phase, while Scorsese was shooting his first real studio film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — so they wound up learning about the downtown rock & roll myths secondhand, absorbing stories through word of mouth and decades of rock criticism.
That doesn’t make them much different than the average rock fan, in a way: they weren’t there but they longed to be. Pining for an experience you never had permeates Vinyl, a show that posits everything — the music, the benders, the record industry, America itself — was better in the past. Our anti-hero Finestra — a protagonist who only seems haunted once he stumbles into an arbitrary murder — can’t resist romanticizing the past, escaping on the slipstream of memories of when he was a bartender turned manager, so in love with the music of bluesman Lester Grimes he needs to spread the gospel. Richie and Lester bond over drinks where they spit out the names of blues legends to demonstrate their brotherhood — “you like Pinetop Perkins? I like Kokomo Arnold!” — but when things go wrong, Finestra sells Grimes contract to the mob so he can acquire the stake he needs to go independent and start his own label, American Century Records.
The paths of Richie and Lester cross again, through some contrivance that just happens to place the recordman and bluesman outside a dance where hip-hop just happens to be born. Like so many other ’60s blues guitarists, Lester is drawn to this futuristic funk but the labelless and hitless Grimes is both specter and cipher, a reminder of the purity of Richie’s love, but also representing how soul, funk and R&B split off from corporate rock in the ’70s. Finestra, however, rode his golden ears toward some murky middle where he’s poised to sell his little label to German conglomerate Polydor despite American Century not racking up any recent hits. Like so many other indies, they manipulate the industry in order to turn a profit — Scorsese’s exposition of how they do this is the liveliest the first episode of Vinyl gets — but it’s all smoke and mirrors without a key man like Finestra, or perhaps a big fish like Led Zeppelin, who apparently is looking to jump ship from Atlantic provided they can get a larger royalty.
Such intermingling of fact and fiction is one of the many unnecessary tangles Vinyl places itself within. Forget the odd casting of familiar faces: a Peter Grant who is half the size of Zeppelin’s actual manager, a New York Dolls that is way prettier than the real thing, Robert Plant as a black hole of charisma — all irritating unforced errors that don’t change the trajectory of the show. No, the real problem is the presence of real life rockers undermines the reality Vinyl strives to re-create, providing guideposts that untether the rest of the story. So much depends upon Richie’s golden ears — he recognizes not only the soul of music, but its future — but the only way to demonstrate his gifts is to have him react to acts we already know: Zeppelin, the Dolls and Abba, all acts who were already signed by 1973, all with careers well underway. Richie doesn’t seem gifted with anything other than the hindsight of history; like the audience, he knows what’s good. Perhaps more importantly, he even knows what’s important, he recognizes the chaos the Dolls are about to unleash, he instinctively feels how that underground dance party is the cornerstone of the revolution.
Plenty of record-men wound up turning rebellion into money without losing outsider credibility but Vinyl insists there’s a dichotomy between pure artistic expression and the industry that peddles pieces of wax. Grimes, naturally, represents purity as does R&B in general. Scorsese unfortunately frames all of Richie’s flashbacks to the golden ’60s through fantastical stagings of R&B classics — an actress wanders through a office lip-syncing to Ruth Brown, the ghost of Bo Diddley plays by the pool, Chris Kenner apparently leads a doo wop group — that only underscore how African-Americans are portrayed as a magical other and most certainly not part of this grimy scene. But these flashbacks are mere window dressing in a turgid two-hour pilot more concerned with machinations than music. Juno Temple’s Jamie Vine is the only character who seems to grasp that pop music is as much selling an image as it is authenticity — she advises the lead singer of the Nasty Bitz (a 1978 UK punk band incongruously placed in 1973 NYC, but who cares) to play up how audiences hate him, understanding that a gimmick isn’t necessarily inauthentic. It is the only moment where music and manipulation coexist in Vinyl. The rest of the pilot yo-yos between boring board meetings and long, vulgar tête-à-têtes with thugs, all culminating in a homicide that’s only there to provide some semblance of a narrative for the remaining nine episodes. But drama is an afterthought in Vinyl: this is wish fulfillment, a show that succeeds in finding glamorous order in a scene that revelled in its chaotic filth.