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HBO's 'Vinyl' hits TV high with Martin Scorsese

Transcendence, music, sex, drugs, capitalism and the American soul — that's the stuff of which HBO's "Vinyl" is made. And even by the "golden age" standards of TV drama today, that makes for moments of extraordinary television.

Set in New York in 1973, "Vinyl" follows the alcohol-fueled and coke-addled career of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), founder and president of American Century Records — a company on the verge of bankruptcy or successful sale to German businessmen when the series begins.

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There's a lot of Tony Soprano in Finestra, which is one of the better things about this 10-part series. The echoes of the New Jersey mob boss are not surprising given that Terence Winter, one of the executive producers and writers on "The Sopranos," co-created "Vinyl" with Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and journalist Rich Cohen. Winter also serves as showrunner.

Cannavale's no-holds-barred performance will further remind some viewers of the work of the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, which is about the highest praise I can give a TV actor.

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But the very best thing about the two-hour pilot that arrives at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO is the way that Scorsese directs it.

Despite the role that teen-oriented TV shows like "American Bandstand" played in popularizing rock performers starting in the 1950s, or the impact of MTV starting in the '80s, television has never been able to successfully tell a great story about rock 'n' roll. The main reason has been the medium's inability to capture the moments of transcendence that a great musical performance delivers. TV simply has neither the vocabulary nor, perhaps, given a business model that values consistency over artistry, the will to reach for such elusive moments.

But as director of one of the greatest concert films ever, 1978's "The Last Waltz," which documented The Band's final concert, Scorsese understands where the magic is, both in rock 'n' roll and film: those moments when the sound or the image connects with something deeper than our everyday consciousness and takes us to another emotional, psychic or spiritual place. And he is still daring enough as an artist himself to reach for it in a television production.

I am not sure he overcomes all of the medium's constraints each time he tries for such a moment in "Vinyl," but he comes close enough on a few occasions to make this pilot two of the most exciting and mind-rattling hours I have spent with TV in a long time.

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Scorsese brackets the pilot with a scene set at the Mercer Arts Center in Manhattan that features the New York Dolls. Strung out on alcohol and coke, Finestra finds himself in the middle of the dance floor surrounded by a sea of young writhing bodies and arms reaching feverishly skyward in time with the music.

It's Finestra as Dionysus. And Scorsese whips it all into a frenzy with sweeping camera movements, jarring perspectives and otherworldly lighting effects until you feel that you are about to re-enter some primitive space where all you want to do is sway and scream, and dance.

The measure of the greatness of Scorsese's direction comes in the way he takes the pilot back to this scene near its conclusion and somehow finds an even-higher gear for what's happening in the room. Given how high the Academy-Award-winning director attempts to reach in the first two hours, I would celebrate "Vinyl" if everything that came after the pilot was a mess.

But the good news for those who take the hook set by Scorsese is that some of the stuff that follows is pretty good, too. Just as David Fincher did when he directed the first two hours of "House of Cards" for Netflix and then handed the reins to a series of other directors, Scorsese set such a distinctive template and tone that succeeding directors can both adopt it and expand upon it under the guidance of Winter.

Allen Coulter, who was a producer and director on "The Sopranos," filmed the second episode, and there is a scene in that hour worthy of Scorsese's work in the pilot.

Viewers are taken in flashback to the night Finestra met the woman who is now his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde). She was then an actress, model and part of Andy Warhol's Factory scene in 1960s New York. Finestra follows her into a nightclub bathroom as the band onstage, the Velvet Underground, starts into "Run Run Run," with its throbbing, punishing and dark, dark, dark bass line.

There the two of them have their first full-body sexual encounter as that music rattles the walls of the restroom. The choreography of their coupling to that relentless beat, heightened by a camera movement that captures his animal energy and the changing looks in her eyes as she watches herself in a mirror communicates both the fierce sexual urgency and the mystical promise at the heart of rock 'n' roll like nothing I have seen on TV.

I didn't know much about Wilde, so the intensity of her performance was a surprise. She holds her own with Cannavale in several emotional scenes as the story line explores their upscale, suburban, family life now that she's abandoned her career to mother two small children while he continues to embrace his chemical addictions and chase the high promised by rock 'n' roll.

There are other nice surprises as well. Ray Romano is terrific as Zak Yankovich, Finestra's down-to-earth partner, who just wants to sell the failing company to the Germans and pay his bills.

"It's a privilege to try and do this job — to introduce the world to new music, to shape the culture," Finestra angrily tells Yankovich and his other partners in a contentious meeting about selling the firm.

"Richie, we're going to be bankrupt in a month," Yankovich says.

"I'm going in a new direction. I'm trying to bring us into the future," Finestra screams.

"While you're over there in the future, I'm here in the present trying to keep the [expletive] lights on," Yankovich replies.

And wait until you see Andrew Dice Clay — yes, Andrew Dice Clay — as a crude, vicious, payola-loving owner of a chain of radio stations on which Finestra needs to get his artists played.

This is where the pilot truly gets Sopranos-like with violence that shocks, a dead body to dispose of and police sniffing around. I miss "The Sopranos" and love the touches Winter brings to this tale. There's even a short speech from Finestra at the start about how the record business used to be "pure" when he first got into it, and how debased it is now. It reminded me of Tony's similar complaint about the arc of his business and life.

But maybe the biggest surprise is Mick Jagger's son, James Jagger, as Kip Stevens, lead singer of a proto-punk band called the Nasty Bits that Finestra sees as the future of rock 'n' roll and the savior of his company. He's good enough by the end of the pilot to make you forget he's Jagger's son.

"When I heard your song, it stopped me in my tracks," Finestra tells Stevens. "It was raw, hard. It connected me to your world: crime, drugs, sex, guns, madness. Do you know how [expletive] huge that is?"

Finestra is constantly trying to articulate his visceral connection to the music.

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"Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, that made you want to dance or go out and kick somebody's ass. That's what I'm talking about," he passionately tells his talent scouts in explaining what he wants them to find.

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At another point, he's trying to explain rock 'n' roll to his staff.

"It's fast. It's dirty. It smashes you over the head," he says through a cocaine haze.

Coked out or not, there are no words that express the feeling of that connection with a piece of great music. It's as fundamental, ancient and profound as people in animal skins dancing around a campfire.

"Vinyl" is a bit uneven once it gets past the second episode. And it has over-the-top moments. But its triumph is in its reach and in finding a way, however fleeting, to use TV to communicate the rush of rock 'n' roll.

On TV

"Vinyl" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

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