The pilot for the musical drama Vinyl is one of Martin Scorsese’s best films, an explosion of amplifier feedback, nose candy, wide-lapeled shirts, and borderline chaos; the next four episodes are almost as good, and on the basis of the first half-season, it already feels like the first new must-see series of 2016. It’s set in New York City in 1973, when crime was rampant, rock and roll was sputtering, disco was ascendant, and hip-hop was in its embryonic stage. Its main character, Italian-American record producer Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), is a consummate Scorsese hero-narrator-scumbag, furtive, wild-eyed, and sweaty, a compulsive liar, a man of bottomless hunger and unrealistic dreams. He’s trying to shepherd the sale of his label, American Century Music, to the German media conglomerate Polygram while staying up for days at a stretch and partying with clients who double as connections. “I’m in a business where professional interaction has a personal component,” he explains to a couple of cops who are investigating him for … well, we’ll get to that.
Selfishness, appetite, sex, drugs, lies, guilt, sin, punishment: All the Scorsese touchstones are represented here, but they’re embedded in the story rather than feeling superimposed from above, as has unfortunately been the case with some of the work from the second half of his career. In the present, Richie struggles to sign Led Zeppelin and keep his marriage to his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), a former Andy Warhol Factory girl, from cratering. His desperate flailings are interwoven with flashbacks to the start of his career in the early 1960s, when he took on his first client, an African-American blues guitarist named Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) and inadvertently (or perhaps just negligently) destroyed him. This subplot is no anomaly: One of the most welcome surprises in Vinyl — co-created by Boardwalk Empire's Terence Winter, who also wrote the pilot and The Wolf of Wall Street — is its awareness that the record industry is built atop a cultural graveyard of exploited African-American artists. They appear in expressionistic musical interludes that are sometimes coded as Richie’s visions (as when Bo Diddley appears in laser-lit mist on the edge of a pool party) but that just as often feel like specters that haunt the white folks whether they notice them or not.
Like the series itself, the pilot is filled with sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and otherwise profoundly deluded and unsavory characters, but the story never seems to be endorsing their behavior. The show holds tight to the idea that the 1970s rock-driven music scene is an antebellum fantasyland that’s teetering on the precipice of irrelevance and could fall into the abyss at any moment, because that’s how history always works and also because guys like Richie have pumped so many psychic toxins into the world that they’re bound to get poisoned too. “They think they can get away with something, but sooner or later the chickens come home to roost,” Richie says at one point, barely conscious that he’s describing himself. The thump-thump-ing bass line that Richie hears as he passes a Bronx housing project where Lester now resides (sounds later revealed to be the work of pioneering hip-hop DJ Kool Herc) heralds a cultural and generational passing of the torch. Richie has no idea how long this process will take, but he knows he has to be a part of it and profit from it. Creation and destruction are continually intertwined. The overdriven sounds made by a sneering young rocker named Kip Stevens (series co-creator Mick Jagger’s son James), lead singer of the Nasty Bits, presage punk, building on the bleeding-edge “authenticity” promoted by Warhol (John Cameron Mitchell) and his Factory musicians, including Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (also regular presences), but finding more nihilistic shadings in the sound.
Cannavale, who’s been the MVP of many superb ensembles but has never carried a project this big before, is so perfect as Richie that you may lament the fact that he’s never been directed by Scorsese until now. He narrates only the first episode (the rest have no voice-over), but his harried baritone croak comes to stand in for the series itself. Cannavale’s broad-shouldered physicality is at once sexy and self-deprecatingly goofy, and he phrases lines like a brilliant trumpeter, finding wit in moments that might not have had any on the page. (His “I’d offer you a drink, but you’re an asshole” is funnier than it had any right to be.) He’s surrounded by formidable character actors operating at the peak of their charisma, including Ray Romano as Zak Yankovich, Richie’s head of promotions; Max Casella as Julian “Julie” Silver, the label’s head of A&R; Juno Temple as Jamie Vine, an A&R assistant who still lives at home with her conservative aunt and hopes Kip Stevens will be her ticket to a promotion; and Andrew Dice Clay as Frank “Buck” Rogers, the owner of a chain of radio stations.
Beyond its bleak humor and aspirations to cultural commentary, the best thing about the Vinyl pilot is its sprightly “Let’s try anything” attitude. It harks back to that period in the ’80s when Scorsese was directing medium-budget features that were handsomely produced and had peerless casts but didn’t feel entombed by Importance. At Vinyl’s best, it feels not like a movie about 1973 but a film from 1973. Scorsese has stripped off the tuxedo and is directing in a dirty undershirt and jeans again, and it’s glorious. He’s not in the studio anymore, he’s live; he’s messing with the set list, he’s riffing, and he’s confident we’ll follow along as the story spirals into despair and depravity, sinking so appallingly low by the pilot’s end that you might wonder if there’s any point continuing. (There is; Richie’s chickens-coming-home-to-roost line pretty much tells you where the story is headed.) The rest of the series’ directors (including Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire veteran Allen Coulter and Carl Franklin, director of Devil in a Blue Dress) follow in Scorsese’s vein while adding their own flourishes, including a startling transition that starts in close-up on a distraught Devon riding in a car and listening to the Carpenters while contemplating her hideous marriage, then pans to reveal Karen Carpenter in the passenger seat, singing along.
Vinyl’s CGI and HBO-cash-assisted resurrection of a long-gone New York is ferociously convincing. The Twin Towers pop up in the corners of frames. Nightclub scenes tend to keep the action at ground level, saving crane shots and God’s-eye views for moments of emotional impact. The show loses its grip on many subplots as it goes along; at times the series itself seems to be hopped up on coke, breathlessly demanding that you pay full attention to certain things while forgetting everything else. But these lapses seem all of a piece. “It’s fast, it’s dirty, it smashes you over the head,” Richie says, describing rock and roll but also Vinyl.
Vinyl. HBO. Sundays. 9 p.m.
*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.