Sometime in the mid-’90s, 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,” says 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 realized in “Vinyl,” which premieres Feb. 14, on HBO with a 2-hour pilot directed by Scorsese. Set primarily in 1973 New York City, the drama stars Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra, the coke-snorting 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 asks. “Marijuana for Matthew?”
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 ’70s eyewitness. “People think that’s the only thing I do,” says Jagger, trim as ever at 72, “but that’s like number 20.”
“Mick is a great artist, period, but he’s also a great creative partner,” Scorsese says in an email. “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 center of the story. Drawing inspiration from a variety of nonfiction 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 says, “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 recalls.
Jagger has been involved in the movie business since the late ’60s and early ’70s, 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.”
Though he was a hands-on creative producer, it was sometimes difficult for his collaborators to forget that he was also, well, Mick Jagger. Winter admits being star struck for at least a few months. At one early creative meeting in Jagger’s hotel room, the singer suggested ordering food from Serafina, a relatively modest Italian restaurant. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, he eats at Serafina? I eat at Serafina!’ I went home and told my wife and she’s like, ‘Well, what do you think he eats?'”
Lombardo, who says he used to lie in his bed listening to “Angie” on repeat, was provided with a potent reminder of Jagger’s fame one night over dinner with Plepler when, during an intense conversation about the challenges of the series, a young female server came to the table. “All of a sudden, the vibration changes,” he says. “There’s something about a huge rock star that’s very different than being with a famous actor or director.”
While there are no plans to write the Rolling Stones into the series (you know you were wondering), “Vinyl” references real artists from the era: the New York Dolls, Led Zeppelin and the Velvet Underground all show up in early episodes. It also features fictionalized 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. Last month, HBO greenlighted “The Deuce,” a drama from “The Wire” writer David Simon set in the Times Square porn industry, while later this year, Netflix will launch Baz Luhrmann and Shawn Ryan’s “The Get Down,” which follows a group of Bronx teenagers in the early days of hip-hop and disco.
“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 says, 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 re-create some of that lost magic, Scorsese says. “Patti Smith said that if you’re a young artist 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 nonfunctional, but also alive.”
Re-creating 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 says with a dismissive laugh. “The same girls with not much on. So what?”
When you’re Mick Jagger, some things never change.