WHAT IT’S ABOUT It’s 1973, and Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is about to unload the record company he built onto PolyGram. He’s done. Richie’s lost his bearings and his passion — except for coke. What sells anymore? Who knows! Worse, Led Zeppelin is about to leave his label. Then one night, he hears the future — the New York Dolls pounding out “Stranded in the Jungle” in a village dive. Later, when his assistant Jamie (Juno Temple) brings in a demo of a punk band called the Nasty Bits (James Jagger, son of you-know-who, plays the lead singer) he’s all ears. Meanwhile, Richie’s partners, Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), the label’s head of promotions, and Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie), head of sales, are worried about Richie’s increasingly erratic behavior — his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), as well. But they don’t know the pressure Richie’s under. Besides the sale, his top boss, Maury Gold (Paul Ben-Victor) is mobbed up. A deranged radio station owner, Frank “Buck” Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay), is driving him nuts. He’s also got some secrets from his past — notably talented bluesman Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh).
The team behind “Vinyl” includes Martin Scorsese — who directs Sunday’s two-hour opener — and show-runner Terence Winter (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”). Mick Jagger is also one of the producers and creators. (And let it be noted that some scenes in the series were shot in Sands Point.)
MY SAY 1973 was a long time ago, so for a quick memory reset — the A’s beat the Mets in seven, and the ribbon cutting at the Twin Towers was that spring. (Remember?) John Lindsay was in his last year as mayor, while the big movies were “The Exorcist,” “Enter the Dragon” and “The Sting.”
Then, there was the year in music. That’s not quite so easy to summarize. Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Marley had their major label debuts. The Stones, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and Elton John had massive hits. “Tubular Bells” came out and so did Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.” “Piano Man” was released in November.
Meanwhile, the punk scene was about to explode or was in the process of exploding with the New York Dolls and (soon) Patti Smith, and the Ramones.
You don’t have to assume the year was musically interesting; the facts tell you that much. “Vinyl” has this banquet spread out before it, with a convulsive Manhattan music scene as setting. Scorsese directs, Winter writes, and the great rock god Jagger — one imagines — stands off to the side, nodding his approval. What could possibly go wrong?
For starters, “Vinyl” is a compelling idea in search of a compelling story. There simply isn’t much of one, in fact, and — abhorring the ever-present vacuum — a lot of other elements rush in to fill the void. Scenes are padded, lots of flashbacks are even more flaccid, while actors devour the helpless scenery. The Diceman chews up so much that HBO probably had to bill him for damages. He roars and bellows and flails. He reminds me of the bear in “The Revenant.”
Even Cannavale does his share of damage. A fine actor, if not always a subtle one, he turns Finestra into a coke-addled maniac and monumental bore. Parody dangerously looms at moments. Jagger, who pursued this project for years, knows this piranha tank better than anyone, of course, but I began to wonder whether “Vinyl” was his long-awaited revenge on music execs instead of homage to them.
Moreover, “Vinyl” doesn’t always feel fully authentic to the moment — either musically or notionally. As a viewer, you’re not transported back to 1973 as much as shoved into it. Lapels are wide. The Watergate hearings are on TV. The “King Biscuit Flower Hour” is on the radio. “Deep Throat’s” up there on the marquee. Graffiti is everywhere else. Snatches of Johnny Winter or K.C. and the Sunshine Band fill the soundtrack. A fictional Johnny Thunders turns up, so does Alice Cooper, Robert Plant and a conga line of others (even Elvis, eventually). But they’re all mostly parts of a window display, only sporadically key story elements.
Sure, there’s hope. As a team, Scorsese and Winter found greatness in “Boardwalk Empire.” Maybe they’ll eventually find it here, too. I just wish they’d found it sooner.
BOTTOM LINE A disappointment.