“Vinyl,” the greatly anticipated HBO series about the record industry in 1970s New York, is ambitious, riveting, brilliant, addictive, kaleidoscopic, gonzo, cartoonish, kitschy, obvious, indulgent, awkward, and bloated. Created by the heavyweight team of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter, the drama is aurally striking, boldly acted, and smartly written, except when its aurally overdone, artificially acted, and written with too many easy period clichés.
Yes, that’s a lot of adjectival matter to unload on one series, especially all at once, right off the bat. But that’s fitting for “Vinyl,” a fever dream of a show that comes on fast and doesn’t let up, that keeps running at you with something, anything — a concert scene with one man completely still amid the rowdy chaos, a tracking shot out of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and a voice-over out of his “GoodFellas,” a classic R&B tune jammed up against a nascent punk song, a few scenes where Andrew Dice Clay, playing a repulsive radio station owner, goes for broke as an actor and wins big time. Sex, drugs, rock, and rolling cameras. There’s barely time to recover as every scene attempts a daring or inventive move of some sort.
There aren’t many shows you can say that about, which makes “Vinyl,” even with its flaws, a success. It’s not just that the series isn’t boring; “Vinyl, ” which has a two-hour premiere Sunday at 9, is always vigorously interesting. That filmmaking energy is particularly evident in the first episode, which is directed by Scorsese and, in a way, works as a self-standing Scorsese film. It’s an introduction to Bobby Cannavale’s Richie Finestra, owner of the record label American Century, who is as Scorsesean as they come — Italian-American, angry, guilt-stricken, magnetic, tormented by dreams of greatness, mentored by mob types, the kind of guy who sucks people into his orbit of moral decay. We meet Richie and immediately know who he is, thanks to the perfect casting of Cannavale. A tinder box of an actor who worked with Winter on “Boardwalk Empire,” the lurching and dark-eyed Cannavale is remarkably watchable as he veers between low desperation and sarcastic comedy.
Richie is at a crossroads, personally and professionally, and so is the music industry. That parallel is one of the best storytelling strengths of the series. Richie is thinking about selling American Century to Polygram at a time when the industry, possibly about to crumble (literally; you’ll see) into cultural irrelevance in the years before MTV, is filled with sellouts. At the same time, he is hungering for new talent to get him excited about music again, just as punk is emerging and hip-hop is beginning to evolve. Sunken into despair, off the wagon and snorting coke, he hears early beats in a housing project, and he is introduced by an assistant to a proto-punk band called Nasty Bits (whose lead is played by James Jagger, Mick’s son). He begins to feel hope.
That’s this particular HBO anti-hero’s redeeming quality — his abiding love and respect for vital music, and his commitment to bringing it to a new generation.
The show frequently flashes back to young Richie’s days in the business, in the early 1960s. Those scenes are less successful than the ’70s material, even cheesy, especially since Cannavale basically looks the same in them except for a different wig. During that Brill Building period, Richie gets involved with black performers, notably an R&B singer named Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) who finds his way back into Richie’s life later on. Throughout “Vinyl,” we see black artists performing in sequences that seem to be taking place in an alternative world. Scorsese and Co. seem to be both reminding us of the roots of rock ’n’ roll and showing us what first sparked Richie’s musical spirit. Like “Treme,” “Vinyl” weaves enough dynamic performance into its narrative — including a scene in which a producer forces the nihilistic Nasty Bits to redo an old Kinks song — to make music into a kind of character.
Richie’s marriage, to Olivia Wilde’s Devon, is shaky, now that he’s using drugs again. “Vinyl” tries to give Devon a history in the Factory days of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, and those flashbacks, too, are cheesy, with actors playing Warhol and Lou Reed and forced lines such as, “Andy asked for you just the other night. Lou was with us.” Devon could become interesting if her story line deepens, if she faces hurdles besides simply those presented by her husband. Finding an interesting place for women in male-dominated anti-hero projects such as “Vinyl” is a common struggle, with “The Sopranos” being the rare exception. Juno Temple’s Jamie, the assistant who discovers Nasty Bits, gets saddled with a by-the-numbers glass-ceiling plot, as the label men who surround her, Richie and his goons (including Ray Romano’s dispirited head of promotion), fail to respect her opinions.
If the whole season were as amped up as the premiere, “Vinyl” might become wearisome. It’s a story about excess told excessively, and after a while the story and characters need to breathe, and so do we. The next four episodes available for review are a little looser and more accommodating, as other directors take the reins, including “Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” alum Alan Coulter. I’m hoping that the casting of the actors playing famous people — we also see Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, and Robert Goulet — will improve. I’m hoping that the telegraphing of big ideas about rock and pop culture will soften. And I’m hoping the secondary characters, not least of all Romano’s gentle second banana, will get more and better screen time. There’s tons of spirit and craft and potential in “Vinyl”; it just needs to become as subtle as it is loud and clear.
Starring Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple, Ray Romano, Max Casella, P.J. Byrne, Ato Essandoh, J.C. MacKenzie, James Jagger, Paul Ben-Victor, Jack Quaid. On HBO, Sunday, 9 p.m.