REELIN’ IN THE YEARS
The hits, memories and mayhem of New York’s music scene in the 1970s are back as Vinyl spins its magic
What just may be the series of the year arrives this week, express from HBO in the US, and it’s just as good as any of us may have hoped. Vinyl is from Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, who gave us the remarkable, highly stylised, highly visual period drama Boardwalk Empire, in which the classical filmmaker embraced the new digital world without losing any of his traditional filmmaking fluency or skills.
The brainchild of Winter, the writer behind The Sopranos, the series meticulously re-created Atlantic City during the roaring 20s, resurrecting an era of corrupt politicos, big bands, suffragettes, showgirls, bootleggers and capricious criminal masterminds.
Vinyl — the title refers to the analog sound storage medium in the form of a flat polyvinyl chloride disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove — co-produced by Mick Jagger, who has his fingerprints all over the series, does the same thing for New York in the mid-1970s. It explores the corrupt and often violent music business in the era of payola and standover men, a deadly enterprise fuelled by cocaine and envelopes of cash.
And it’s alluringly played out through the story of a NYC record executive with a dark past and a serious habit trying to revive his label, American Century records, and keep his personal life from spiralling out of control.
He’s Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale, Emmy-award winner for his psychopathic killer Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire), volatile boss of American Century Records — he tells his story in voiceover narration — and times are grim in 1973, rock’n’roll “no longer recognisable as the thing people used to be so afraid of”.
The recordman (his description) relates how he started at the bottom of the industry, cleaning ashtrays, rolling beer kegs and scraping Chubby Checker’s vomit out of the inside of toilets until he reached the top. “I had a golden ear, a silver tongue and a set of brass balls — the problem became my nose and everything I put into it,” he says.
Now facing crises with clients — he owes a bundle to Jackson Browne, among others — and his team is unable to land significant new acts. Their roster, he tells them, is like a Chinese menu, all over the place, “too much Robert Goulet”. He wants to dump and run, and, he tells his disenchanted wife Devon (Olivia Wilde), live a normal life. This is his story he says, “clouded by lost brain cells, selfaggrandisement and maybe a little bullshit — but how could it not be?”
We zip back five days earlier and he’s in Germany with his henchmen trying to sell the company to a German conglomerate, a deal seemingly settled apart from the fact he hasn’t landed the contract with Led Zeppelin.
And that’s where we start on this dizzying rise through America’s music-business landscape in Scorsese’s artfully realised New York. It’s the beginning of the five years many would say changed music forever, a time of creative pollination as genres clashed, died or emerged, fostered in a climate of dense, young, artistic populations drawn downtown by low rents in the yet-to-be-gentrified warehouses of SoHo and Tribeca. It’s punk exploding out of the grungy clubs, and hip-hop on the street corners but also disco in the swish clubs, salsa and loft jazz.
It’s just breathtaking, a Scorsese feature film of a pilot, even if — with so many characters, plots and foreshadowed subplots so fleetingly introduced — it can leave you feeling as if you’ve had too much Peruvian dancing dust.
Scorsese’s filmmaking is stupendous, as energised and anarchic as the music he celebrates — surely this is the most expensive pilot in TV history. There is the frantic action, the tumultuous crowd scenes, his cameras somehow pushing through to find his subjects, the freeze-frames and whiz pans, the precise period detail — those haircuts and moustaches and the long sharkfinned collars — and, as in Goodfellas, a morally questionable leading man relating his story.
Then there’s the signature long tracking shots of great emotional power. What we see and how we see it, and how the camera moves in relation to its subject are all perfectly integrated. The whole caboodle is drenched in music, carrying the action, commenting, sometimes just celebrating with affection. Not a moment is wasted; Scorsese, as always, uses the whole language of film to involve us.
He said of the making of Goodfellas that he wanted to begin it like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a 2½ trailer. “I think it’s the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it.”
And he does something similar here at the start, taking us into a frenzied concert at the Mercer Arts Centre with a drugged-out Finestra after he has just scored on the street where the New York Dolls are rocking out Personality Crisis, that anthem of kitsch yet menacing bluesbased garage rock. Punk, glam metal and the new wave are just around the next corner and Finestra is in heaven along with the crowd. The camera movements not only take us into his head (“Now frustration and heartache is what you’ve got”) but right into the music, its raw power to transform. As Winter says: “It’s rock ’n’ roll, just go with it.” Hats off, too, locally, to Seven and Matchbox Pictures for the small-scale, extremely tense, character-driven new series Wanted, starring Rebecca Gibney and newcomer Geraldine Hakewill, which started last week. It is of a small subgenre film critic Stephen Holden once called country noir, “which takes the nihilism and violence of the city and deposits them in some bucolic pasture with devastating results”.
Gibney’s Lola Buckley is the fading 40something blonde who has squandered what chances her beauty afforded her and has fallen into a job at the local supermarket. Hakewill is Chelsea Babbage, a 29-year-old finance worker who compulsively seeks control in everything but never finds happiness. They’re strangers who have silently waited at a bus stop every
Wanted, morning for two years, polar opposites sharing lives of quiet desperation.
A violent carjacking goes wrong and they find themselves pitching about in the boot of the car, a carry bag of money on the back seat, a small-time crook (Ryan Corr) at the wheel — and the corrupt cops behind the crime on their tail. Each woman has secrets from her past and has to quickly learn to trust the other despite their differences.
It’s created by Gibney and her husband Richard Bell and, guided by veteran producers Tony Ayres and Julie McGauran, they skilfully give us a world where guilt and innocence are problematic. It’s not one of those crime shows where a death is at its heart, one that is mysterious, and we wait for the resolution, the restoration of order. As directed by Peter Templeman, Timothy Hobart’s script is far more adventurous and challenging, especially on free-to-air TV, and Seven must be applauded for such a bracing series that once would have seemed more at home on Foxtel.
What’s interesting is the effect of the crime on those innocently and inextricably tied to it. It’s a story of increasing anxiety and dread, and we’re only at the end of the first episode.
All the conventions of the cop show are thrown out of kilter from the start and the problems of guilt and complicity, of menace and victimisation dominate the frenzied action. There’s a lot going on here, though it unfolds in a smart and generically knowing way, superbly realised in John Stokes’s noirish photography.
One thing is certain: these two women, whose only role is to survive the hostile world in which they find themselves, are going to provide plenty of surprises as this grimly entertaining narrative unfolds. Gibney is terrific; her usual steely exactness is replaced here with vulnerability and a slight tremulousness — and an adroit way with some mordent one-liners — although as always she maintains an acute control over the shape of every line and movement. And Hakewill is a wonderfully fresh leading actress, tall and charmingly ungainly with a gift for subtle physical comedy. Wanted doesn’t make a single false move. It’s tight and gripping with two wonderfully real women at its centre. Bravo.
Monday, Showcase, 3.30pm express and 7.30pm encore.
Tuesday, Seven, 9pm.
The cast of Vinyl, left; Rebecca Gibney in below