The new HBO series Vinyl, cocreated and executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger (along with Terence Winter of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, and Rich Cohen of Magic City), is set in the music industry of 1973, which functions as a kind of year zero for the main character, a tormented label head named Richie Finestra, for whom everything must change whether he's ready or not.
Vinyl has an absurdly huge number of things going for it—the collective genius of its creative team, unprecedented access to music that would be too expensive for most productions to license, keys to the deepest vaults of backstage scuttlebutt, and a cast full of fantastic actors. All of which made the experience of watching the feature-length pilot (directed by Scorsese), and especially the second episode, all the more staggeringly disjunctive. How, you felt the shrinking world of rock 'n' roll true believers wonder in unison, can a show about rock 'n' roll created by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese be so incalculably poor?
I've come to believe the answer is in the question. And I say this as a lover of both the Stones and Scorsese's films. The issue isn't about the two of them canceling each other out, or great talents making less-than-great things, or either of them being too old to "get it" anymore. In fact, they're the perfect age—rock 'n' roll, as Robyn Hitchcock memorably sang, "is an old man's game." Who but a couple of dudes in their early 70s are likely to think of the beginning of the end of rock music's imperial phase as a likely font of Aristotelian gravitas?
When we meet Richie, he's on the verge of selling his label, American Century Records, to a German conglomerate willing to pay far more than the label is worth. Tormented by demons (addiction, a shady past, the nagging sense that he has learned what it profits a man to gain the world and lose his soul), he spends the Scorsese-directed pilot episode preparing to lose it, and, shortly after accidentally abetting a murder, properly loses it after stumbling into a New York Dolls show that rocks so hard it literally makes the entire building collapse.
The show wants to (and gets to) have everything both ways. The music references are both vague and specific. The characters are caricatures convinced of their essential individualism. The clichés about art versus commerce, risk versus complacency, "real" rock versus sell-out garbage are self-justifying platitudes for a cabal of parasitic middlemen whose essential humanity you are required to sign off on. And the egregious mistreatment of the female characters wants to exist in that same conflicted shadowland established by The Sopranos and Mad Men—in which the point of showing it is to call it out—AND to be played for period laughs. It feels cheap.
It is, in short, a colossally mixed metaphor, a photo that blurs the more you zoom into it. Even the most audacious narrative trick—the Dolls literally bringing the house down—folds under questioning. And not because it plays loose with facts (the Mercer Arts Arena did collapse, and the Dolls did play there, just not on the same night) but because the show itself feels all wrong. Scorsese wants a New York Dolls show to begin with the kind of youthquakey, kids running wild in the streets to get to the big show energy that only exists in rock 'n' roll films. The way he shoots it makes it seem like the revolution is already underway.
Even the detail work is egregiously off: The guy they get to play Robert Plant looks like he just stepped out of a community college "dress like a hippie day" poster, and the Lou Reed look-alike is even worse.
How did Mr. Rock 'n' Roll and his most ardent disciple get everything so wrong? The answer may have less to do with where they're at now than what they were up to when the series is set. If you wanted to know what the on-the-ground world of rock 'n' roll was like in 1973, Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese might be the last two people to ask.
The Rolling Stones had just completed the greatest four-LP run any rock band had ever made—Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile in Main Street IN A ROW. They, and Jagger in particular, were in their own orbit of fame, wealth, and glory, untroubled by earthly concerns and about to embark on a run of increasingly mediocre work (1973-present, most of Some Girls excepted) that only confirmed their detachment from humankind. It's no surprise that, however smart and cagey Jagger is, all his most ambitious ideas since that time have the air of an inspiration reached while getting your dee-essed in a hot tub filled with Cristal on a private jet made of gold.
Scorsese, for his part, had just released Mean Streets, an electrifying bildungsroman of Italian American culture fueled by rock music... but not the rock music of 1973. When he featured the Stones, it was the Stones of 10 years earlier. The films he would make over the next several years were all about being out of step with the current era—Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was as much an homage to Douglas Sirk as it was a feminist narrative; Taxi Driver is exclusively about alienation (shout-out to Travis not knowing who Kris Kristofferson is and "accidentally" smashing his TV while Jackson Browne sings on American Bandstand); New York, New York is an old-time musical (about spousal abuse); Raging Bull is a black-and-white film about a boxer with a vacuum for a sense of self; and so on.
The one exception was The Last Waltz, a concert film of the Band's final performance that substitutes the obvious drama right in front of its eyes—Robbie Robertson's bronze-guitared, white-scarved self-mythology being openly despised by his less-camera-savvy bandmates—for a glamorous, choreographed master class in printing the legend. His love of rock music has everything to do with his ability to aestheticize and bend it to serve his visceral cinema. And no one has ever done it better. But his connection is based on a fantasy. And that fantasy makes Vinyl into a camp fairy tale that thinks it's a morality play and acts like it's the most important artwork in the world.
Which, in a funny way, is exactly what people who hate the cult of rock 'n' roll purists have been saying for years.