Great New Series ‘Vinyl’: This Is How Show Business Worked in Dirty ’70s New York

The very first minutes of the first episode show us it is worth watching. Especially because of the way Scorsese presents the main character.

New York, 1973. The camera shows a middle-aged man. Either he is very stressed or doped up, as his face screws up unnaturally. When he takes a huge sip from a bottle, the mystery seems resolved. But alcohol is only a means to subdue his thoughts. The guy evidently has a serious problem.

What do we know about him? He is sitting in a stylish Mercedes on an abandoned street. His driver must be a loaded fat cat, who is looking for one thing only in these suburbs: drugs. “180 dollars a hit,” says the cocaine dealer. “Keep the 20,” replies the guy behind the wheel, giving him 200 dollars. “Are you from Wall Street?” asks the dealer. “I’m from the record industry. Do I fucking look like a guy from Wall Street?” swears our irritated hero.

But how to snort it? A moment of hesitation, a moment of struggle while he contemplates the matter, and the rear view mirror ends up on his knees. But the hit needs to be “sorted” [with something] — the business card of the detective from the homicide bureau, for example. The driver snorts the coke, but the relief is only temporary. Again he looks at the business card, reaches for a mobile phone (it is a really expensive Mercedes) and dials a number. On the other side of the receiver a male voice speaks up. When our character wants to say something, a drunk teenager jumps on the car after which others follow.

The man gets out from the car and follows the teenagers, all rushing somewhere. The music from the club around the corner can be heard. There is a queue outside but the bodyguard immediately lets the guy in. Drug addicts, transvestites, exhibitionists — people that fit in with this dirty and sordid interior. And on the stage are musicians that look like a combination between the Stones, David Bowie and Lou Reed. It’s The New York Dolls, the now legendary proto-punk band, playing “Personality Crisis,” its first single.

The rich guy merges with the crowd and lets the music carry him. Problems disappear, tension on the face changes into ecstasy. There it is, the power of rock ‘n’ roll!

You Jealous Assholes

If Martin Scorsese is behind the camera, imagination tells you it must be the introduction to another story about the New York underworld in the style of “Goodfellas.” The guy on the screen does business with the grace and ease of a classic gangster, but in reality he is just a guy from the record industry. His name is Richie Finestra and he is the boss of American Century (a fictional company, as the series is not based on a real story).

“I gave people what they wanted, and in return they made me horribly rich. But before you say I’m a jerk, listen you jealous assholes: I worked very hard and honestly for you to be able to hate me now,” he introduces himself. He is equally blunt about his partners. “You know the story about the wolf in sheep’s clothing? Zak dresses at the same tailor.” This is how he describes his closest aide in the company.

American Century is in financial crisis. The only solution might be a contract with a German phonographic company that wants to enter the American market. The Germans lay out demanding conditions. They want to have a star in the catalog, and Richie’s negotiations with Led Zeppelin are going badly. Finestra is desperately trying to resolve the issue, but it’s not his only worry. The company lost its ability to hunt down new talent. Richie entangles himself in a conflict with a boss of a chain of radio stations. His private life is in trouble — he is trying to combine a rakish life of a New York bon vivant with that of the family breadwinner, a family that waits for him at his house in another state.

Also, a story from the past is dragging behind him. As an early career manager he bought himself out from a record company thanks to a clever deal with the mafia. But he paid a high price for it — he betrayed his friend, a soul singer just starting out. Old demons return in the least expected moments.

Period of Storm and Pressure

Similar problems could happen to any character of a series, in any epoch and in any industry. What makes “Vinyl” attractive is that it takes the viewers to an exceptionally interesting period in the history of pop culture: The era of hippy resistance is in decline, and along with it the innocent times of the phonographic industry. A couple of years earlier there were dozens of local companies. But this market changed quickly into a genuine industry when big money came along. In serious business only the best will survive. Those were ruthless times, but also pioneering, and still marked by the romanticism that accompanied the birth of pop culture after the end of World War II.

The interior of American Century is a mixture of an office, music club and party place. The secretary’s duty is not only bringing sandwiches but also delivering drugs the colleagues from the company request. Thanks to drugs one can, for example, endure a long recording session with some uninteresting artist.

There was an outbreak going on in the music world at that time. The stars of the ’60s were slowly being forgotten. But in the underground scene, there was a new music revolution beginning to boil. During a night trip with Richie around New York one can easily recognize the sounds that will become the nucleus for punk rock, disco and hip-hop. Is there a more exciting time to work at a record company than then?

America in Ruins

To be able to tell [the story], one needs to use a special language. People directing “Vinyl” guaranteed it. That’s Scorsese — one of the producers and directors of the pilot episode.

The American champion greatly understands the exaggerated [tone of] rogue cinema, and not only gangster movies prove it but also films like “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But he also perfectly understands music. He made a couple of music documentaries (for example, the amazing “No Direction Home” about Bob Dylan, and a brilliant series about the history of the blues) and [a film about a] fantastic Rolling Stones concert called “Shine a Light.”

The singer Mick Jagger is also involved in “Vinyl” — as a co-producer but also co-author of the whole script; it could be said that they both put plenty of their own recollections into it (Jagger, in cooperation with son James who portrays a vocalist, also wrote the songs for the Nasty Bits band that appears in the movie). On the producer’s team there is also former journalist of “Rolling Stone” magazine and author of essays and books about modern history Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter, a screenwriter and producer of “The Sopranos,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the series “Boardwalk Empire” (besides, Scorsese was the pilot’s director and one of its producers). Bobby Cannavale, the main actor in “Vinyl,” also [took part] in the last production, as did the director of the second episode Allen Coulter.

And one more guarantee of quality: The climate of New York in the early ’70s is precisely reconstructed. Here, it’s Scorsese again, who has shot such brilliant portraits of the city as those in “Taxi Driver” and “After Hours.” At the beginning of that decade, New York was on the verge of bankruptcy. Drug addiction, prostitution, violence, and tenement life coming apart — all of it formed a reality closer to dystopia rather than the fairy tale about the American dream.

Fashion, design, even the titles of the movies that were playing in the cinemas (there is a neon sign advertising “Deep Throat,” a classic of pornography that premiered in 1972) all compose a portrait of a city dealing with a difficult but amazingly creative time. Just the collection of people seen in the background clearly illustrates why New York of the mid ’70s became such a hotbed of simultaneously decadent and energizing music that it still inspires pop culture today.

A sensitivity to the climate of the era and the social changes taking place in that time make [the experience of] watching “Vinyl” similar to watching “Mad Men,” but [with more emphasis] on drugs and with lots of details from the world of show business — and with excellent music.

“It was a time when New York was in a very bad financial state. Not a really good place to live if you’re bringing up a family; it’s horrible. If you were single and a musician, it’s slightly different … It was a fascinating time. Very quick creative processes … For me it was an amazing place to be,” reminisced Mick Jagger.

You can see it, hear it and feel it in every scene of “Vinyl.”

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