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HBO's Vinyl: As Wild and Dangerous As Rock & Roll Itself

Showrunner Terence Winter talks about his new '70s rock drama

Liam Mathews

Vinylis as prestigious as prestige television gets. Its four co-creators -- Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter -- have combined won almost every accolade and lifetime achievement award imaginable. It's a meticulously detailed period piece with a powerhouse ensemble, intricate writing and the kind of dreamlike storytelling beloved by TV critics. It's got hard TV-MA sex, drugs, violence and profanity. And it manages to be as messily, dangerously alive as the music its characters are chasing.

Vinyl shows the music industry of the '70s through the eyes of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the manic head of fictional American Century Records. "This is my story," Finestra says in a voiceover in the first episode (oddly, subsequent episodes don't use voiceover), "clouded by lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement, and maybe a little bullsh--, but how could it not be, this f---ing life?"

In the first scene of the two-hour, Scorsese-directed pilot, Finestra is sitting in his car, sniffing cocaine off the snapped-off rearview mirror. It then flashes back to show how he got to this moment: He's readying a deal to sell his company, which is hemorrhaging cash, to German conglomerate Polygram. He needs to sign Led Zeppelin in order to make the company more attractive, but the band is giving him a lot of trouble. His wife Devon (Olivia Wilde), a former Warhol Factory superstar, is trying to make the most of her life as a housewife in stuffy Greenwich, Conn., but she misses her old life, which she gave up to become a mother. She also gave up drugs and alcohol in solidarity with Richie, who sobered up from his addictions.

Vinyl: Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese define the '70s New York rock scene

Richie is haunted by his past, which re-enters his life in the form of a chance encounter with Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a former blues singer who blames Richie for his failed career. Richie is very, very far from the hungry young man who loved music who he once was, and he feels alienated from himself. When his artist Donny Osmond flakes on a promotional appearance at a radio station owned by Buck Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay), it has disastrous consequences. So Finestra falls off the wagon, goes to see the New York Dolls, and reconnects with the spirit of rock & roll.

"When we meet him, he's sort of anesthetized to all the things that got him interested in rock & roll in the first place. He's kind of dead inside. He doesn't really listen to music anymore, he doesn't go to clubs anymore," co-creator and showrunner Terence Winter tells TVGuide.com. "On paper, he's got this perfect life, but there's just nothing there." The show is going to follow him as he says "f--- it" to all that and becomes the wild man he believes he is.

Vinylis the happiest medium between Scorsese and Winter, even more so than their previous collaboration on HBO's Boardwalk Empire pilot. The subject material -- drugged-up crooks who happen to be involved in rock & roll in 1973 New York -- is pure Scorsese, while the exquisite attention to period detail, time-jumping narrative and real historical figures interacting with fictional ones are all elements that Winter perfected on Boardwalk Empire.

Terence Winter talks about the Boardwalk Empire finale

Vinyl, in the first five episodes made available to critics, is highly reminiscent of Boardwalk Empire. Vinyl and Boardwalk Empire are both at their heart shows about business, and much of the plot of Vinyl stems from contract negotiations. Bobby Cannavale, who won an Emmy for his role as psychotic mobster Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, takes the Nucky Thompson patriarch/CEO role as Finestra. Like Nucky, Finestra is a charismatic addict at the center of a complicated, crooked empire where everyone is financially reliant on him. Unlike Nucky, Finestra does not keep himself under control. Cannavale, a whiz at portraying volatile tough guys, plays Finestra as a man giving in to all the urges he'd managed to tamp down, whether it's rage, cocaine, or rock-fueled recklessness.

In the pilot, one thing in particular happens that wakes him up. It's not a good thing, but "it's like electric paddles to his chest," Winter says. "Even though it's a bad thing, it's like, 'oh, this is what it feels like to be alive again. This is rock & roll.'"

"The worst version of Richie Finestra is in some ways the most interesting and exciting version of Richie Finestra," Winter says. In Richie's mind, the fact that he's survived everything he has and gotten where he is means he's supposed to be some sort of savior for rock & roll. "He's like 'I'm anointed. I'm meant to do something really important,'" Winter says. Considering the bands Richie's into and the raw energy he's pursuing, that important thing could be shepherding punk rock, which is still forming itself in 1973, into the game-changer it becomes later in the decade.

The show hums with coked-up energy. Scorsese directs the pilot with the controlled recklessness of his actual '70s movies, and the directors who step in after him do an able job of holding on to that spirit. The first half-hour of the pilot is actually the weakest part of the first five episodes. It feels scattered and unfocused, and it dips into self-parodic cliché at times, like when Richie enters a concert venue and on his 50-foot walk to the dance floor he sees every imaginable excess on the way. But once it settles into its groove, it stays in the pocket.

Cannavale is at the center, but the whole cast is excellent, and it's difficult to single out individual performances when they're uniformly solid. Olivia Wilde is excellent as Devon Finestra. Every facial expression is loaded with ambivalence -- she loves Richie, but she's unhappy in the life he's forced her into. Ray Romano is a million miles from Everybody Loves Raymond as douchey head of sales Zak Yankovich, a man torn between loyalty and resentment. Max Casella is delightfully skeezy as American Century's crass head of A&R Julian "Julie" Silver. And Juno Temple is a revelation as Vinyl's Peggy Olson. She plays Jamie Vine, an assistant with ambitions of becoming a big shot. It's through her that the industry's sexism is examined.

"There were very few women in that position in the music business at the time," Winter explains. "Even though it was the era of women's lib and equal rights, it was still pretty close to the Mad Men era in the way women were treated in the office. So it was interesting to me to depict a very conniving, ballsy, ambitious woman in a world of men where she would normally be completely excluded."

That hasn't changed much in the ensuing 43 years, and the themes of Vinyl are still relevant. "We're still talking about women's rights and reproductive rights," Winter says. The ways that the 1973 of Vinyl looks like today are not by accident. Some of the people involved in the making of Vinyl were there in 1973. Scorsese and Jagger were two people who shaped what the '70s were, and now they're looking back and seeing what changed (the fashion, mostly) and the big things that didn't.

Vinyl premieres Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9/8c on HBO.

(Additional reporting by Adam Bryant)