LOS ANGELES – Martin Scorsese will forever be married to the mob, but his most lasting legacy may be as a music man.
The soundtrack to the director’s professional life has had its fair share of hits (“The Last Waltz,” which documents the 1976 all-star salute to the Band, remains the quintessential concert film) and neglected deep cuts (1977’s “New York, New York,” a scruffed-up tribute to MGM musicals, has more to offer than Liza Minnelli belting out the title song). And what would that scene from “Goodfellas” with corpses popping up across the mean streets of the city be without the coda to “Layla”?
But Scorsese has never rocked out as hard as he has for “Vinyl,” a new series about a label executive’s inner war between a love for power and his love for soul music. The battleground: 1973, a year in which roots-inspired records were starting to get nudged off the charts by strains of punk and disco.
It’s no coincidence that Scorsese’s collaborator, at least when it comes to the drama’s concept, is singer Mick Jagger, whose understanding of the business has played an often overlooked factor in the Rolling Stones’ durability.
“Before Marty, people used music occasionally, but Marty was one of the first people to use rock ’n’ roll in movies wall to wall,” said Jagger, who doesn’t appear in the series but is somewhat represented by an image-conscious punker played by his son James Jagger.
It made complete sense for Mick Jagger to reach out to Scorsese, who used “Gimme Shelter” in three of his films and specializes in bringing out the charm in seedy characters, much in the same way the Stones challenge listeners to consider sympathizing with the devil.
“I’m his audience,” Scorsese said. “It’s stuff that is basically the inspiration for a lot of the visualizations throughout my films, particularly ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Raging Bull’ and all the way up to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ His songs are tough and strong and reflect the attitudes of the people and the lives I grew up with. It was natural for us at some point to do something together.”
Not that the pilot, Scorsese’s first directorial effort for nonscripted TV since laying the foundation for “Boardwalk Empire,” is simply a two-hour music video.
The lead character, Richie Finestra, has to take his headphones off long enough to deal with a disgruntled Led Zeppelin, a staff of A&R reps not savvy enough to foresee the onset of Abba and a radio station owner convinced that Donny Osmond is one very bad apple. An accidental murder and a nasty coke habit don’t help.
But Finestra, played with James Brown-like ferocity by Bobby Cannavale, escapes into his inner jukebox often enough to give Scorsese license to create charged set pieces including Bo Diddley popping up at a pool party and the New York Dolls putting so much naked energy into “Personality Crisis” they reduce a welfare hotel to rubble.
“I wanted to create something in the pilot, and in the show, where the whole narrative is like a piece of music,” Scorsese said. “You are hearing what’s in his head, whether he wants to hear it or not.”
Everybody loves Romano
Other Scorsese trademarks are also on display. His tendency to cast comedians in dramatic roles continues with Ray Romano as Finestra’s slightly more grounded business partner. (The sitcom star insists that the director had no idea who he was before his audition.)
And despite a career showcasing testosterone-fueled protagonists, the director has always left room for strong, ambitious women, as Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) and Cate Blanchett (“The Aviator”) can attest.
In “Vinyl,” the gender is well represented by Juno Temple, an ambitious assistant with her eye on breaking the glass ceiling, and Olivia Wilde as Finestra’s wife, whose loyalties (and sobriety) are tested time and time again.
“We really worked hard to make her multidimensional and to make this relationship very unique, I think, and very authentic,” said Wilde, who made it very clear before joining the series that she didn’t want to play a glorified groupie. “It feels very real to me.”
Dusting off ‘Vinyl’
Persuading the in-demand Wilde to join the band wasn’t the biggest challenge for Jagger and Scorsese. The two started bouncing around ideas for a feature film in 1996, but the ambitious scope, as well as an economic recession, got in the way. Television, with its open-ended structure, eventually made sense.
Not that the independently minded Jagger had an easy time adjusting to a different sort of studio.
“The great thing about music is that, opposed to making a TV series, you can do it on your own,” he said.
At least he was wise enough to find that right person to duet with. Scorsese won’t be directing any more episodes this season, but he plans to be more involved than he was with “Boardwalk Empire,” even as he preps for two films, including a biopic of Frank Sinatra.
“I intend to be as involved in as much of the episodes as I can and hopefully direct a few more,” Scorsese said. “This is very natural to me. It’s close to my heart.”