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John Doyle: New HBO drama Vinyl is pure rock ’n’ roll

It arrives on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, and if you like the rock 'n' roll, you will love it to pieces. Even if you're not a rock geek, just go with it.

It's Vinyl, HBO's stunner of a drama series set in the music industry in the mid-1970s. A one-sentence summary would be this: "The owner of a struggling record company, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), tries to find the next hit record to save his company in the 1970s."

But it is a great deal more than that. "I've been living with this guy, this character for more than four years," Cannavale says to me in a quiet room away from the hustle and bustle of the TV critics winter press tour. "I'm into it, I know this guy, and it's been a wild and crazy education. The working title for this was, 'Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' – for obvious reasons."

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Little wonder. Vinyl started years ago, an idea pitched by Mick Jagger to Martin Scorsese. He wanted an epic movie that spanned 40 years in the life and times of a record company guy. He had the stories, the anecdotes and the dirt to make it funny, smart and revealing. Scorsese loved the idea but struggled to find a script that would match his and Jagger's ambition.

Nine years ago, Terence Winter, who had written many of the best episodes of The Sopranos and who created Boardwalk Empire, was asked to take a run at the screenplay. He did, gave it to Scorsese and, long story short, about six years ago the project was brought to HBO.  Between those two times, the film project was re-conceived as a TV series and pitched to HBO as a series in 2010. Winter and Scorsese decided quickly that Cannavale, who played Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk, was the man for the lead role. They ran the idea by Jagger, who agreed. These days, premium cable is, obviously, the best option for a story so dramatic, debauched and rich.

"I grew up an actor wanting to work with Marty Scorsese," Cannavale says. "Not 'somebody like Marty' but Scorsese himself. Now I am, and Mick Jagger is the producer."

From Jagger, he didn't get direction but he learned a lot just by watching him. "It's like hanging out with the sun. Mick is the centre of attention. I watched him deal with all these pumped-up people who wanted to be by his side. I watched how people treated him and reacted to him. I learned what rock 'n' roll stardom means."

The series is set in 1973, in New York, for a very specific reason – something that Scorsese and Jagger agreed upon. It was a time of multiple pop music genres, clashing, dying or emerging and vying for attention. Hard rock was enormously popular but on the cusp of fading; punk was exploding out of grungy clubs; disco was soaring into popularity in more swish nightclubs and, on the streets, hip hop was starting to form as a movement in black music.

"I kinda wish I'd been an adult then and lived through that time," Cannavale says ruefully. (He was only three in 1973.) "It was chaotic and exciting. You can see in the first episode what Richie was experiencing, surrounded by music, sex and drugs. Me, I first smoked pot at a U2 concert in 1984 or thereabouts. I remember leaving the concert thinking, yeah, we're gonna change the world. We didn't. Everything was changing 10 years before that."

One of the defining elements of Vinyl is its blunt depiction of an era when people bought vinyl records, the radio stations played them and the business was fuelled by money and cocaine. We see DJs paid to play new records with cash and coke. We see orgies hosted by radio station owners who believe they are the real power brokers in a multibillion dollar business. Vinyl is drenched in music, there is barely a scene that doesn't have classic pop and rock playing. And all of it feels authentic, anchored in Jagger's stories and staged by Scorsese with formidable verve.

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"Marty rehearses a lot," Cannavale says. "A lot. You do it, he watches. Then, weeks later you get a call to go to a hotel room and Marty has you do it again, over and over. Then a few weeks later you go back to the hotel and do it again. It's work, believe me. But this is the most multidimensional role I've ever had."

The crux of the plot is this: Richie's label is in trouble and German investors want to buy it. They'd like him to sign Led Zeppelin first, but they want his company. Richie knows he can only avoid the Germans by finding the next big thing. He goes to see a punk band and he feels the thrill he first felt when he heard R&B when he was a kid. Meanwhile, he knows there's something the black kids are doing, with turntables and rapping, that's very interesting. Finding that hit, the next hit, means everything, Richie is married with kids. His wife, Devon, is played by Olivia Wilde, who sits down in Cannavale's chair as soon as he leaves. Devon is a mysterious figure in the first episode. A suburban housewife, it seems, but there's a beguiling backstory.

"It was important to me that Devon's history explains why she's a suburban mom," Wilde says. "And important that we learn why she truly isn't that at all. It's about her sobriety issues. As you'll see in later episodes, Devon was part of the Andy Warhol Factory scene. She had to get out. But what happens when Richie has this crisis pushes her back. That's all I can say without spoilers."

Wilde says that in order to get inside the Devon character she studied the women who surrounded Jagger over the years. "Looking at those women was very, very interesting to me. I had to ask myself: 'Why did they stick around and put up with all that debauchery?'

"Mick Jagger is much more involved than I expected. He gives notes about what rings true in a scene or a piece of dialogue. He's not in charge of everything on Vinyl, he's just interested in accuracy. He lived through it. And something Mick said about the sixties and that 1970s period was helpful. He said, 'None of these people knew they were changing the whole culture.' "

Winter explained the long gestation for Vinyl. "Mick talked to Marty in 1996. It came to me in 2008. I wrote a movie treatment that might have worked, but the world economy collapsed in 2008. We shot the pilot episode for HBO in 2014. So, Mick's been waiting a long time for this to happen."

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Winter says there is a big emphasis in accuracy, realism and getting things right, but there are limits. "With the Internet, it can get insane, the nitpicking. People in the music biz are going to be watching this with a microscope. We have four consultants, experts in the music industry. Real people are depicted [the first episode has a gloriously colourful encounter with Led Zeppelin] and we send them the script pages that depict them. So far, everybody we've asked has agreed.

"But it's very important to know that it's a fictional story. Richie is like a guy from The Sopranos. He boasts, he's all talk sometimes. He's an unreliable narrator. If somebody finds we're not accurate about something in this story, I'll just tell them what the show is about – it's rock 'n' roll, just go with it."

Later after these interviews, there was a chaotic and often hilarious press conference with the actors and Winter, plus Scorsese on a giant satellite screen from New York and Jagger on a giant screen from somewhere else in the world. Trouble was, Jagger couldn't hear Scorsese and vice versa. Jagger just giggled throughout.

Asked why he went to Scorsese with his idea, Jagger drawled: "Oh, God. Marty is like a great connoisseur of music for a start, and in his movies, I think he's one of the first people that really used rock 'n' roll in movies, like, wall-to-wall. Before Marty, people used music occasionally, and he more or less invented this kind of use of music that we are totally at home with. And, of course, I always admire Marty's movies from the seventies onwards."

He seemed to wait for Scorsese's reply and when there was silence he started laughing. Scorsese meanwhile mugged for the camera. After what Jagger said was relayed to him, fitfully, Scorsese said: "Well, for me, the music that they created, Mick and his group, you have to understand I come to it as a filmmaker and it's stuff that is basically the inspiration for a lot of the visualizations that I have of scenes 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 a constant. It's very much a part of my life. It was a natural for us at some point to try to do something together."

Jagger was asked what was the first record he ever bought. He looked highly amused and replied, "I think the first record I bought was A Teenager in Love by Frankie Lymon." Then he paused and added, "I still feel it."

And at that point laughter was general. (Actually, Dion and the Belmonts did A Teenager in Love, but nobody noticed or cared.) It was chaotic, but I remembered what Terence Winter said, the most apt comment of all, about Vinyl: "It's rock 'n' roll, just go with it."

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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