“Vinyl” comes outfitted with such a gaudy band and intoxicating setting – reuniting the “Boardwalk Empire” pairing of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, coupled with producer Mick Jagger, star Bobby Cannavale and a 1970s rock ’n’ roll backdrop – that it’s hard not to root for it. The two-hour premiere, though, is a big, messy affair, sometimes mesmerizing, occasionally aggravating, providing a taste of what’s to come while feeling too caught up in stylistic flourishes. All told, this is a huge project that perhaps only HBO could deliver. But so far, the album isn’t quite as good as the liner notes.
Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, a record executive who is introduced at his wit’s end, buying coke on the street and snorting it up with gusto. His frantic situation unleashes a series of flashbacks, not just regarding what brought him to this point, but to his early days in the music business, when he found a signature act and began making inroads into the game.
As it stands, Richie is now the proprietor of American Century Records, which is on the verge of being sold to Polygram, provided that Richie and his central team – which includes right-hand men played by Ray Romano and J.C. MacKenzie – don’t somehow screw up the deal. The fear that could happen triggers what might be called a series of unfortunate events, among them an attempt to re-sign Led Zeppelin – whose manager loathes Polygram because of its German parentage – and a desperate search to unearth new acts.
The product of a lengthy gestation process, “Vinyl” goes beyond just name-dropping, as rock luminaries pass through Richie’s orbit, albeit in a less ostentatious manner than the way “Boardwalk Empire” was built around its real-life mobsters. Winter and company also weave in plenty of amusing ’70s-era references, from Richie’s development team dismissing Abba as a worthy prospect to a second-episode riff involving “Enter the Dragon.”
The knowing nature of this framework is balanced against a music scene filled, not surprisingly, with sex, debauchery and characters seemingly plucked from the “Star Wars” cantina. Those colorful elements intertwine with all sorts of shady corporate shenanigans, from unsold records disappearing to radio-station payola in the form of “$100 handshakes.” The abundant money breeds commensurate excess, perhaps most embodied in an unrecognizable cameo by Andrew Dice Clay as a radio exec who serves as one of those gatekeepers, whose palm, among other things, must be greased.
It’s plenty interesting stuff, including the various creative forces at play in the era, as well as its seamier aspects. Yet even with the benefit of a two-hour launch, the premiere unfolds in a manner that can feel as scattered and undisciplined as the headlining acts – not just in its bouncing chronology, but the extended, dreamlike sequences that seek to convey, for instance, being at a raucous concert in a surreal, drug-addled haze, an experience that even a director as adept as Scorsese can’t help but make look a trifle cliched on the screen.
“Boardwalk” alum Cannavale dominates the premiere and subsequent episodes (five of the 10 were previewed) – perfectly cast as a character described as possessing “a golden ear, a silver tongue and a pair of brass balls.” Alternately charming and mercurial, frenzied and blissed out, his blinding intensity eclipses practically everything around him.
While everyone else feels a tad underdeveloped initially, the story settles down, and the flashbacks gradually flesh out the supporting players, including Olivia Wilde as Richie’s trophy wife, a former model and Andy Warhol protege; Ato Essandoh as the artist who helped launch Richie’s career; and Juno Temple as an ambitious A&R assistant, who discovers a band whose surly lead singer is played by Jagger’s son, James, who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to his old man. (Other than HBO’s “Treme,” few series have organically incorporated more music, which is fun and meticulously replicated but, as on “Empire,” also can bring the story to a periodic halt.)
For HBO, “Vinyl” already feels like a winner conceptually and promotionally – the kind of splashy, big-ticket series destined to unleash premium waves of publicity and attention. Yet despite the overt and intangible dividends associated with a project adorned with so much A-level talent, compared with the standard of prestige HBO dramas, this one plays more like a “B” side.