By Rob Lowman
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For the record, Mick Jagger admits he doesn’t play vinyl anymore.
“But all my children love it,” says the rock icon.
Despite that fact, it was “Vinyl” co-creator Jagger who came to Martin Scorsese with the idea of doing a “Casino”-like movie set in the rock world. The movie, which was going to cover a 40-year span of music, never got made, but it eventually morphed into this ambitious and exciting new HBO drama, premiering Sunday with a two-hour episode masterfully directed by Scorsese.
Showrunner Terence Winter (“Sopranos,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “Boardwalk Empire”) says that when he came aboard in 2008, he wrote a script for the project, but by the next year the economy had tanked. “So studios weren’t interested in doing a three-hour epic on the music industry,” he says.
So they focused on turning it into a TV series. “We looked and decided 1973 was the best year to start the show,” says Winter, “because that was the year that punk, disco and hip-hop landed within a six-month period of each other and within five miles of each other in New York.”
And don’t forget it was also the era of glam rock, super groups, the emergence of Bruce Springsteen, plus rock’s ever-present companions — sex and drugs. It’s a fertile time in the music biz to dig into, and “Vinyl” captures the rush.
Of course, this is right up Scorsese’s alley. He was an assistant director on “Woodstock” and made some of the best music documentaries ever — “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” PBS’s “The Blues” and “The Last Waltz,” about The Band’s final concert.
The filmmaker says that Jagger and the Stones have been “the inspiration for a lot of the visuals throughout my films, particularly in ‘Mean Streets’ or even in ‘Raging Bull’ and all the way up to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ So it’s constant. It’s very much a part of my life.”
“Vinyl’s” story spins out from the character of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the founder and president of American Century Records, who is desperately trying to save his struggling company.
Richie is a guy who came up loving the blues, jazz and R&B but realized his talent was in promoting, not playing, music. After years in the rough-and-tumble industry — that had its share of shady characters — he has developed an armor to survive.
Winter describes Richie as an amalgamation of number of different record executives he researched. One cool aspect of “Vinyl” is that the characters’ histories allow the series to incorporate earlier music through flashbacks. So Richie is shown early in his career when he signed a blues artist named Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh). He then turned Lester in an early 1960s pop singer, putting out lightweight but catchy songs like “Cha Cha Twist” with the promise — never fulfilled — of recording the real stuff later.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the record industry was notorious for ripping off artists both financially and artistically — especially African-American ones. Jagger has his own story about that, after he says the Rolling Stones were “really screwed in the ‘60s.”
“I got really involved in record companies and how they worked and who was good, who was bad, who paid who, who screwed who, and who ended up with the money,” he says.
Winter doesn’t see Richie’s combination of being a tough businessman with a refined ear as unusual for the era. “He was born in the ‘30s and grew up in the ‘40s. That means he was listening to jump blues band swing bands. So his musical landscape is pretty deep.”
Richie — played with great intensity by Cannavale — is also there for the beginning of rock, and when he passionately describes the kick he got from hearing Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” for the first time, Scorsese’s editing brings it home.
“It’s interesting that these guys may have great taste, but then they can hear a record that they know for all intents and purposes is pop garbage but that it’s going to hit a sweet spot and sell a million copies.”
Like Winter’s “Boardwalk Empire,” this new show also traffics in real characters to give it a sense of reality. In the first episode, Led Zeppelin, who Richie’s company is trying to get under contract, make an appearance.
But since this primarily a fictional world, the series has also cleverly created both songs and bands that seem real. On Feb. 12, Atlantic Records and Warner Bros. Records released “Vinyl: Music From the HBO Original Series — Volume 1,” a mixture of music written for the series and songs from the period. Each week throughout the show’s 10-episode run, more music will be released.
One of the cuts on “Volume One” is “Cha Cha Twist,” which if you didn’t know better you would think came from the early 1960s. It’s sung by Ty Taylor, lead singer of Los Angeles-based soul-rock band Vintage Trouble.
Jagger and his actor-musician son James Jagger, who fronts a fictional band in the series called Nasty Bits, contributed a song called “Rotten Apple.”
Mixed in are classics like Otis Redding doing “Mr. Pitiful” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way From Memphis,” as well as lesser-known gems like Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.”
The real test for music fans will be to see if they can tell the difference.
Winter, who was 13 years old and living in New York City in 1973, says he grew up with his four older siblings’ music. “So I got their music and my own music and had a pretty firm education in rock ‘n’ roll by the time I came of age.”
The showrunner says one of the fun moments in filming “Vinyl” came when they were shooting a club scene with a disco song playing that was written for the series and extras were holding up their cellphones with the Shazam app, thinking it was from the era.
“That’s when we know we’re doing our job really well.”
By Rob Lowman