How do you know you are in a Martin Scorsese movie?
Is the massive coke snort in the back of the limo? Is it the voice-over letting us know backstory we would have to otherwise infer (or learn from another character)?
Is it the loving shots of recreated 1970s downtown New York, all underbelly and tagged subway cars? Is it filled with the worship of blues and R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll?
Is it an act of savage violence that isn’t completely necessary to the plot but acts as a catharsis for a central character? Is Mick Jagger’s kid involved?
A few of these apply to any number of his films, but if the answer is “all of the above,” you are in “Vinyl,” the new 10-episode series airing on HBO, the two-hour pilot for which airs Sunday. Written by “Vinyl” showrunner Terence Winter (“Sopranos,” Boardwalk Empire”), the pilot was directed by Scorsese, who co-created the show with Winter, Rich Cohen and Mick Jagger.
‘Vinyl” follows Richie Finestra (Bobby Canavale), whose record label American Century is in a bit of a transitional moment. It is 1973 and Finestra is ready to sell the label to the German multinational PolyGram. But A.C. is stuggling: they don’t have the next big thing, nor do they have Led Zeppelin, who they have promised Poly they will sign.
Finestra has the gorgeous wife (Olivia Wilde), the mansion in Connecticut and a few entertaining underlings: Ray Romano is the radio promotions guy Zak Yankovich, prone to slipping some $20 bills and an eight ball of coke to DJs, Max Casella is A&R chief Julie Silver (who we learn passed on Abba) and J.C. MacKenzie is Skip Fontaine, the sort of accountant who can make a load of albums disappear into the East River for tax purposes. (Andrew Dice Clay, of whom I never tire in dramatic roles, is hypnotic as a nasty radio executive.)
The pilot spends its time following two threads: where Richie is now (struggling to figure out what his next step is) and how he got there (doing time at a label cranking out ’50s bubble-soul; managing, then screwing over, a young blues musician (Ato Essandoh)).
Elsewhere, an ambitious gofer (Juno Temple), who seems responsible for maintaining the label’s stash of every drug you could possibly want, decides to back a young punk band called the Nasty Bits, whose (bafflingly British) lead singer is played by Jagger’s son James. (While the New York Dolls were destroying stages at that point, ’73 is slightly early for punk; in a kind of genius move, the Nasty Bits’ music is that of Jack Ruby, a brilliant proto-punk act who were indeed a few years ahead of their time.)
It is hard to know exactly what to make of “Vinyl.” Much the like the casino scenes in “Casino,” the stuff about how the record business worked back then is a blast (the music supervision, by increasingly legendary supervisor Randall Poster, is top-notch).
But, also a bit like “Casino,” everything else (Finestra’s blues fetishism, his excesses, his marital woes) feels warmed over and dull. This is Scorsese by-numbers.
Then again, there’s more trashy pleasure in even mediocre Scorsese than most things and when “Vinyl” connects (which, in the pilot, is not quite as often as it should) it reminds you why record people don’t want to do anything else with their lives.