Great artists sometimes need to be dissuaded from tackling their inspiration head-on – the results can be dispiritingly literal. Steven Spielberg didn’t need to make “Hook”: we already knew he was a Peter Pannish wunderkind. David Cronenberg didn’t need to adapt “The Naked Lunch”: he’d been adapting William Burroughs his entire career. Martin Scorsese has spent his life importing the energy and spirit of rock ’n’ roll into areas not typically associated with it. He has made gangland seem rock’n’roll (“Goodfellas”). He has made Wall Street seem rock ’n’ roll (“The Wolf of Wall Street”). The idea for his new HBO series, “Vinyl”, which came originally from Mick Jagger, therefore swings somewhere between genius and tautology: can Scorsese invest rock ’n’ roll with the energy and spirit of rock ’n’ roll?
Bobby Cannavale plays a 1970s Italian-American record producer called Richie Finestra, who has, as he puts it, struck it “ridiculously stinking fucking rich”. He is about to become even richer when a German media conglomerate, Polygram, buys his moribund record company, American Century Music. Hoovering up coke with his clients for days on end, trying to secure Led Zeppelin before the Germans sign, struggling to keep his marriage to a former Andy Warhol Factory girl called Devon (Olivia Wilde) intact, Richie is a lost soul on a fast track down. This is a Scorsese specialty, and in the first episode, which he directed, he supplies a New York to match his gutter’s-eye memory of the period. We get subways covered with graffiti, garbage-strewn streets, clubs littered with bodies. And if the flying phones don’t hit you, duck for the incoming name-drops: “So I was with Daltry and Moon…”, “Andy asked after you the other night, Lou was with us…”, “Donny fucking Osmond — can you believe it?”
Actually no, but it lends some surface fizz to a series that, on the evidence of the first few episodes, seems hollow fun and no more, content to prop up the myth of the 1970s as a non-stop bacchanale of smashed TVs and nose candy. It’s a conceptual trap, for all attempts to recreate the anarchy of punk on-screen are doomed to Spinal Tappish disappointment. Just one orgy? Why not two? Just two smashed TV sets? Why not three? Terence Winter’s potty-mouthed script, coming hard on the heels of his work on “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Boardwalk Empire”, suggests that his voice has yet to break fully. It finds its perfect expression in the strangled tones of a young rocker named Kip Stevens, played by Mick Jagger’s son James, who has his father’s weird capacity to sound several octaves in the course of a single vowel. “What do you care about?” the record label’s secretary, Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), asks him. “Fucking and fighting,” replies Kip, his Adam’s apple pogoing like a rocker in a mosh-pit.
The plot is that old friend, corporate sell-out versus raw authenticity, with Kip helping the record exec from his professional coma. This being Scorsese, the spiritual rebirth is literal. Richie is caught in the collapse of the Mercer Arts Club, awakening from the ruined building like Griffin Dunne breaking out of his plaster cocoon at the end of “After Hours”. In fact, for a series that bemoans corporate sell-out, “Vinyl” shows Scorsese to be perfectly willing to hawk his own brand, with Winter playing the role he played for “The Wolf of Wall Street”: the snickering, hovering amanuensis, cueing up the master to perform covers of his own greatest hits. The screech of feedback is overpowering.
We get New York viewed through the rain-beaded windscreen of a taxi, à la “Taxi Driver”. We get the disposal of a body from the trunk of a car lit by hellish brake lights, à la “Goodfellas”. We even get a brash loudmouth in a club, repeatedly challenging his listeners not to take him seriously — “Do I look like an asshole to you?” — except in “Goodfellas” the joke was underlined by the knife-like delivery of Joe Pesci, flipping the mood from funny to threatening in the blink of an eye. Here we get Andrew Dice Clay in a bald wig, amping up Winter’s script (“Shut your mouth before I break off my dick in your ass”) to insufferable levels of braggadocio. Lord, save artists from their acolytes. If Scorsese explored the male psyche in all its peacock strut, Winter gives us the male psyche’s callow, impressionable younger brother, showing off with F-bombs and blow-job jokes. “Vinyl” feels too much like “Fame” as rewritten by the makers of “Southpark”.
Any hopes the series has of going deeper lie with Richie and Devon, its central couple. Cannavale’s low, mellifluous baritone is rich with the burr of bullshit; Olivia Wilde, whose chemistry with him bristles with ambivalence, goads him to take one more swig of bourbon before taking one herself, and later photographs their smashed-up living room as if she were back at the Factory, recording the aftermath of one of Warhol’s parties. The Dionysian excess of “Vinyl” blows away like so much confetti, but the secrets to this marriage could well hold our attention, if Winter has the sense to unravel them.
Vinyl HBO, February 14th