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The cast of HBO's 'Vinyl'

Drop the Needle on HBO’s ‘Vinyl’

When Eric Clapton formed a band with Steve Winwood, or when Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young got together, or when half of Soundgarden and half of Pearl Jam teamed up to form Temple of the Dog, or when Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones and the guy from Queens of the Stone Age formed Them Crooked Vultures, they call that a “supergroup” — successful guys in their own right getting together to see if the whole can be even greater than the sum of their considerable parts.

The combination of director Martin Scorsese (GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz among many other classics), showrunner Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and Mick Jagger (if you don’t know who he is you shouldn’t be reading this) is like a supergroup for television, and I am pleased to report that they are very much in tune on Vinyl.

Set in 1973 New York City, the series follows record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) through four stressful days leading up to his cocaine relapse at a New York Dolls show, and like Richie’s life itself, it is a rock and roll nerd’s paradise.

Fictional characters and made-up stories are deftly embroidered with real people, real music, real bands, real labels, real places, not unlike Winter’s previous project, Boardwalk Empire. Richie goes to see the New York Dolls; he tries to sign Led Zeppelin and clashes with their legendarily mercurial manager, Peter Grant; he’s given Bo Diddley’s guitar for his birthday; his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) used to hang out at Andy Warhol’s Factory. In different hands, a show like this would keep its references easy and its music cues obvious, but Vinyl goes deep, name-checking the likes of Suicide and Slade and the Asheton brothers (from the Stooges, dummy) and filling the soundtrack with deep, interesting cuts with subtle lyrical ties to what Richie is experiencing, starting with the Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.”

Scorsese directed the pilot, and his love of the music — long apparent in his previous work, where he has never hesitated to fill his soundtracks with needle-drops — animates his camera and the overall energy level. The feeling of an exciting band on stage in a packed room is difficult to capture on film — watch the wretched CBGB movie for proof of that — but Scorsese rises to the occasion and puts the audience inside Richie’s head as he experiences a sonic epiphany at the moment he needs it most.

I watched the bulk of Boardwalk Empire, Winter and Scorsese’s previous collaboration, and though that show never looked less than spectacular, I never managed to make myself care about any of the characters; the whole thing stayed oddly bloodless for its whole five-season run. Going into Vinyl, my one reservation is that it might suffer a similar fate. But early indications are promising: the show is packed with interesting and amusing characters like Ray Romano’s promotions man; Max Casella (The Sopranos, Doogie Howser) as the head of A&R; Juno Temple as a secretary with aspirations of moving up; James Jagger (Mick’s son) as the junkie leader of a punk band; even Andrew Dice Clay pops up in a memorable turn as a hedonistic radio station owner.

The massive rock and roll industry as Vinyl finds it in 1973 was largely built by screwing musicians over, particularly the black ones, and to its credit the show does not whitewash this dimension of the business. I particularly loved seeing a bunch of guys straight out of GoodFellas, complete with long pointed collars and shot glasses, in the background of one scene. There is also a detailed explanation of how the record labels were able to turn even flops into black ink on the balance sheet at the expense of the artists.

The two-hour premiere plays like one of the best films Scorsese’s made in the last several years; his camera is alive, rarely sitting still. A lot of directors would follow a character through a crowded office to establish the scene; few would break off from that character, take another, more scenic route, and rejoin them at their destination. The period detail is seamless, and there were moments where I truly couldn’t tell if the exterior establishing shots were archival footage or newly shot.

In any case, when I got to the end of the pilot I was holding up my lighter and begging for an encore.

Vinyl premieres at 9pm ET Sunday on HBO; all episodes will be available on-demand.