Sometime in the mid-1990s, after grunge and before the boy band era, Mick Jagger approached Martin Scorsese with an idea for a movie about the music business. The project would span several decades of rock history and focus not on decadent musicians, as one might expect, but on the executives who ran the record labels.
“Everyone was very familiar with all the musicians’ excesses of the period – throwing televisions out the window, excessive sex and drugs and all this sort of thing,” said the Rolling Stones frontman, lounging in his capacious (and very much intact) hotel suite last month. “My observation was that the business people were really crazy.”
Twenty years and numerous incarnations later, Jagger’s vision has finally been realised in Vinyl, which premieres today on HBO with a two-hour pilot directed by Scorsese.
Set primarily in 1973 New York City, the drama stars Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra, the president of an embattled record label called American Century. The drama also includes Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter as a show runner, and co-stars Olivia Wilde as Richie’s wife, a sobered-up Factory Girl now living in the Connecticut ‘burbs, and Ray Romano as the sleazy head of promotions at American Century.
Both the excess and the energy of the period were evident during a visit to Vinyl’s Brooklyn set last fall. Cannavale and several dozen extras clad in black leather, gold lame and frayed denim were filming a raucous party scene at American Century’s earth-toned, smoke-filled offices.
As the Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane throbbed in the background, an assistant director gestured toward a young man with Allman Brothers-style hair and a silk bomber jacket. “Can I get a joint for Matthew?” she asked.
With painstaking detail, right down to digitally re-created graffiti on the subway, the series vividly captures an era when New York was financially strapped but creatively thriving. It’s a milieu that Jagger, who lived in New York for some of the decade and partied at Studio 54, certainly knows well. But as a co-creator and executive producer on Vinyl, the rock ‘n’ roll icon has done more than play the part of 1970s eyewitness.
“People think that’s the only thing I do,” said Jagger, trim as ever at 72, “but that’s like number 20.”
“Mick is a great artiste, period, but he’s also a great creative partner,” Scorsese said in an e-mail. “It’s not just a matter of knowing this or that story but of getting the feel of it: what it felt like to be a promotional assistant at a record company, or a platinum-selling band at the mercy of the executives, and what it felt like to be in those offices, in those recording booths, in those clubs. The texture of it all, the life … that’s what Mick brought to it.”
The filmmaker, who also directed the Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light, was excited by the idea of putting the suits at the centre of the story. Drawing inspiration from a variety of non-fiction books about the industry, including Howling At The Moon: The Odyssey Of A Monstrous Music Mogul In An Age Of Excess, by former CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff, and Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men: Power Brokers And Fast Money Inside The Music Business, Jagger began to develop the script with Scorsese and journalist Rich Cohen.
Winter, who wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street and won two drama writing Emmys for The Sopranos, was eventually invited on board. He didn’t take much convincing. “Taxi Driver was the movie that got me interested in cinema,” he said, “and the first album I ever bought, in 1973, was Goats Head Soup by the Rolling Stones.”
When the economic collapse of 2008 cooled Hollywood’s appetite for risky, adult-oriented movies, the trio decided to reconceive the project for television, which, led by the likes of HBO, had become a viable outlet for ambitious storytelling. “After The Sopranos and several others like it, TV series started to come into their own, making money, attracting big actors,” Jagger said.
Over tea at Scorsese’s Manhattan townhouse in 2011, they pitched the series to HBO’s top executives, Michael Lombardo and Richard Plepler. Lombardo, the network’s programming president, was immediately struck by both Jagger’s un-rock-star-ish ensemble (a fine cashmere sweater, no leather) and, more critically, his producing smarts.
“As you find out right away with Mick Jagger, you’re talking to a very able, perceptive and experienced producer,” he recalled.
Jagger has been involved in the movie business since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he starred in films like Performance and Ned Kelly. More recently, he’s produced several well-received movies with his Jagged Films partner Victoria Pearman, including the James Brown biopic Get On Up, the World War II code-breaking drama Enigma and the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane. Still, the pace and scale of television took some getting used to. “It’s easier doing movies,” he said wearily.
Throughout the process, Jagger met with directors, weighed in on casting, music cues and costumes, and even visited the writers room. He particularly enjoyed the “literary part” of making a series, he said. “How are the characters going to develop? Making sure they’re not cardboard characters, the minor characters are fleshed out, a lot of chats about the women characters, because everyone’s so sensitive about it …. It’s all very interesting.”
While there are no plans to write the Rolling Stones into the series (you know you were wondering), Vinyl references real artistes from the era – the New York Dolls, Led Zeppelin and the Velvet Underground all show up in early episodes.
It also features fictionalised performers, like a proto-punk band called the Nasty Bits whose sneering lead singer is played by Jagger’s 30-year-old son, James. (The younger Jagger is not the only rock progeny to appear in the series; Juno Temple, whose father, Julien Temple, directed the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, stars as a striving A&R assistant who keeps a stash of “bennies” in her desk drawer.)
Vinyl is the first of several television projects that will transport viewers back to New York in the Taxi Driver era, a time that now seems unimaginably distant despite its relative proximity.
“Life in the city was kind of hard if you were poor, and even if you were rich it was not that pleasant, but there was a lot of creativity going on,” Jagger said, citing the explosion of musical genres like punk, reggae, funk and hip-hop and the flourishing downtown art scene. “It was very vibrant, so I think that’s appealing to people through the misty glass of time.”
Vinyl is an attempt to recreate some of that lost magic, Scorsese said. “Patti Smith said that if you’re a young artiste finding your way, don’t come to New York. She’s right. So Vinyl is about the city that those kids dream of – a crazy city, dirty, very dangerous in spots, sometimes non-functional, but also alive.”
Recreating it is one thing; reliving it, quite another. For his part, Jagger isn’t exactly longing to travel back in time to the Me Decade.
“It was very different to now, but what’s the difference? I was on the dance floor last night dancing, so what? The music was different, but I’m still probably dancing the same steps. D’you know what I mean?” he said with a dismissive laugh. “The same girls with not much on. So what?”
When you’re Mick Jagger, some things never change. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service
Vinyl is on every Monday at 10am on HBO (Astro Ch 411/HD Ch 431), with a repeat at 10pm.