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HBO’s new ‘Vinyl’ brings the music biz—and ’70s NYC—to life

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Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde star in Vinyl.
Smith Galtney

Back in August, I wrote a column about watching the trailer for Vinyl, HBO’s new series about the music business in the 1970s, and trying not to get my hopes up because “95 percent of all music shows on TV suck.” Well, I just finished the first five episodes, and I’m positively giddy to report that Vinyl is the 5 percent exception—a really good show about music, that actually has good music in it, plus characters that don’t make you groan. It’s not quite great yet. But it’s got great potential. And it’s more fun than a barrel full of sleazy, coked-out monkeys.

Vinyl, co-created by Martin Scorsese (who also directed the pilot), is set in New York City in the early ’70s, and the producers spared no expense in re-creating the trash-ridden streets, the dilapidated buildings, the vandalized subways. It’s easy to romanticize the Manhattan of yesteryear, when rents were cheap and bohemia flourished, where punk and disco and hip-hop emerged simultaneously. But it was also a filthy town where people got mugged and murdered and threw themselves in front of trains. Even worse, the free-love movement of the ’60s had devolved into an orgy of cheap cologne, phony gold chains and sweaty CPAs who thought they were Casanova. Vinyl uses its very big budget to remind us that, yes, the decade was fabulous, but it was also pretty ugly.

At the center is Richie Finestra, a record executive who’s inspired to revamp his flailing, out-of-touch label after having a cocaine-enriched epiphany during a New York Dolls concert. Most shows totally botch this “aha” moment. Either the music they’re supposedly transfixed by is awful, or the scene is killed by cliché. (Cue slow zoom-in as character leans forward, nods head, stunned by aural greatness.) But Vinyl nails it; even the look-alikes pantomiming to the Dolls’ “Personality Crisis” hit all the right notes. When Richie—perfectly played by Bobby Cannavale—starts preaching to his colleagues about the power of rock ’n’ roll, we’re sold because the show conveys music experiences worth preaching about.

What rings a tad false are the non-musical elements. The pilot leads up to a Boogie Nights-esque bit of ultra-violence that ushers in two detectives wearing bad Mike Brady wigs and taped-on pornstaches. And I’m not quite sold on the Nasty Bits, the punk band Finestra signs in hopes of molding them into The Next Big Thing. For one thing, the lead singer is played by James Jagger, who bears a distracting resemblance to his dad, Mick (another of the show’s creators). Secondly, they’re called the Nasty Bits, and the more people in the show refer to that name being great, the more I laugh.

As a period drama set in the workplace at the dawn of a tumultuous decade, Vinyl draws easy comparisons to Mad Men, and HBO is clearly banking on it becoming a similar phenomenon. It’s nowhere near as nuanced in roping history into its narrative. (The Watergate references and a Warhol subplot feel clunky.) But with CBGB and Bronx block parties and Studio 54 all looming on the horizon, there will be plenty opportunity for ironing those kinks out. Besides, how can one really gripe when a show’s idea for exit music is the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”? I hope Vinyl lives long enough to see the ’80s.

Vinyl Sundays, 9 p.m., HBO.

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