The HBO series “Vinyl” is set in 1973, when the music business was in the middle of a revolution. Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper were among the biggest rock acts, but that era saw the birth of punk, disco and hip hop. “Vinyl” focuses on a record label exec named Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale. Finestra is struggling with sobriety, a marriage on the rocks, and a whole lot of problems at his label, American Century.
“Vinyl” began as a movie idea that Mick Jagger pitched Martin Scorsese 20 years ago. His original pitch covered decades in the music business. Terence Winter — who co-created the show with Jagger, Scorsese and writer Rich Cohen and is the "Vinyl" show runner — spoke with The Frame’s John Horn about how that seed in 1996 became HBO's Sunday night drama in 2016.
Winter addresses criticisms that "Vinyl" is another show about white men behaving badly, explains why a murder takes place in a show about the music industry, and talks about the depiction of women. He also stresses that the Olivia Wilde character — Cannavale's wife — leaves behind the suffering suburban housewife character she initially seems to be and forges her own path by episode six.
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When you started researching this era and finding the amazing true stories that happened, what astonished you in terms of the things that actually transpired?
When we started researching 1973 specifically, a lot of my research led me right to music. I was reading about the New York Dolls and how they used to perform at a club called the Mercer Arts Center ... located in the first floor of an old 19th Century hotel called the Broadway Central Hotel on Lafayette and Mercer Streets. And in reading further, that building collapsed in 1973 ... There was a band rehearsing there and it actually happened during the day, thank god, when not that many people were in there. But it just felt too irresistible to not incorporate into our show in a fictional sense. It was such a great metaphor for Richie’s experience at that moment that we decided, It’s okay, we can take some creative license here.
1973 also represents an interesting era in the evolution of women in the workplace, the relationship between men and women. It’s before AIDS and after the pill. So what does that give you socially outside of what’s happening in music that year?
Well, it’s so interesting — even though the show is set 40 years ago, there are so many topics that are still current. I mean Roe v. Wade [had] just happened, abortion just became legal in 1973, and here we are still debating women’s rights in that regard. Certainly in terms of politics and corruption in government, well, we’ve got that today, and Watergate was raging at the time. So there’s so many instances of holding up a mirror to society and it gives us the opportunity to explore issues that are current today.
One of the criticisms about the show is that it’s yet another premium channel drama that centers around straight white men behaving badly, often towards women. Episode three starts with a very fleeting shot of a guy grabbing a receptionist's breast s— it’s unclear if it’s a welcome intrusion. While that might be historically accurate, what are the perils of presenting that kind of behavior to a modern audience?
I don’t really consider them perils at all. I mean, I’m not trying to rewrite history or write a show that makes people feel better about the way men and women interact — or did interact in 1973. These are very complicated characters. Very often they’re engaging in very bad behavior. I don’t think I have a duty — or that the audience needs me — to point out that it’s not really nice to treat women as objects, or [that] casual racism is not welcome in the workplace or anywhere else.
We’re just sort of depicting and presenting the reality of the world as it existed in 1973. I think I’d actually be doing a bigger disservice to the viewers by candy-coating history and changing it to make it this feel-good depiction of an era that never really existed. You know, as we said, 1973 was a very big year for women and women’s rights ... but the reality was women didn’t have a voice in the workplace, nor did minorities. And to present it in such a way that makes it seem different is dishonest and I don’t think does anybody any favors.
"Vinyl" airs Sunday nights on HBO.