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Three cheers for Scorsese's 'Vinyl'

Mick and Marty were right.

When Mick Jagger first proposed the idea of HBO’s “Vinyl” to Martin Scorsese in the mid-’90s, the two of them first tried to get it made as a movie. No luck.

So now it’s a 10-part HBO series whose pilot was unveiled Sunday evening. Scorsese himself directed the pilot just as he once directed the pilot of the much inferior HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”

Sunday’s pilot of “Vinyl” is the most exciting thing by Scorsese I’ve seen since his Oscar-winning “The Departed.” It was exactly what you hope to see him doing at the age of 73.

That means it wasn’t just vastly better than “Boardwalk Empire’s” pilot but also “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Shutter Island” and even “The Aviator.” Only “Hugo” and “The Departed” were on the same level as Scorsese’s “Vinyl” pilot.

And thereby hangs the latest interesting development in the long-running tale of movies vs. premium TV. The trouble with the story we saw Sunday is that it’s going to have to continue. Nine more episodes will happen. Our hero/anti-hero Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) will fall and rise and rise and fall. New characters will come and go. Back stories will be revealed. The pop music business of the 1970s will turn into a fictionalized TV fiesta every week.

There are, somewhat incredibly, people slamming the pilot of the badly titled “Vinyl” (the original title was “The Long Play”) as a “mess,” “empty” and worse.

Not even close. What makes it one of the best things Scorsese has done is that it’s full of loose fantasies about primal Scorsesean stuff – the love of pop music he evinced in “Mean Streets,” as well as the complex and acid portrait of the record business as an often horrific ongoing exploitation of some of the most remarkable artists black America ever produced. (“Musicians ain’t your friends,” says Richie’s first major business mentor. “They’re products.”)

And right there is the monstrous paradox “Vinyl” is too smart to avoid: that the ears of so many of those bottom-level businessmen were so acute that they midwifed the birth of so much great American music – stuff that will be listened to as much as any American music. Their ethics, though, were the opposite of their ears – completely underdeveloped. They were jungle predators, greasing their hits with payola and exploiting and ripping off their musicians like the inhuman “products” they took them to be.

That’s Richie, who built up his label American Century to be so good that the rich Germans at Polygram want to buy it. The trouble in American Century is that it is bereft of creativity at the moment. It has to cater to the likes of Donny Osmond because he sells. American Century, says the music press, is “where artists go to die.”

But Richie, as “Vinyl” presents him to us, still has Golden Ears even if his nose still has a craving for nose candy. He walks into a room full of tin-eared lieutenants, all of whom are poo-pooing new demos from Abba. His boys don’t get it. They can’t hear what’s there. Only the “sandwich girl” does.

Says Richie: “Three bars … And I can tell you they’ll be filling football stadiums.”

“I WANT WHAT’S NEXT!” he yells at his squad of musical undertakers.

Richie just gets it. It’s 1973 and he supposedly heard project kids playing with turntables before hip-hop happens. He’s intrigued. He watches punk rock energy bring down the Mercer Arts Center (a real building collapse but given a delicious new fictional spin). As it comes down, Richie smiles in coked-up energy while experiencing a building razed by rock ’n’ roll.

Scorsese is having a great time here. We know how much he loves this music and milieu from his documentaries and his music soundtracks over many decades. “Vinyl” bursts with milieu – unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was full of money going nowhere and doing nothing good.

The crowning glory of “Vinyl” is the cast. Not only was Scorsese smart enough to hire Ray Romano as a funky American Century exec smart enough to give Richie a square 1959 Gretsch guitar a la Bo Diddley for a birthday present, but he was smart enough to get Cannavale to play Richie.

Cannavale has been a star waiting to happen as long ago as the series “Third Watch” on NBC. Everyone has always known it. Sidney Lumet did his bit for the cause by featuring him in the TV series “100 Centre Street.”

It just took a while. But Cannavale’s stardom finally happened, I think.

I’d be amazed – and no little discouraged too – if after “Vinyl,” Cannavale isn’t “the next thing.”

You need to know about “Vinyl.” It awaits on HBO.

Welcome back to the streets, Marty.


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