It’s always comical to see characters you’ve known in real life portrayed on film, famous or otherwise. When they get it wrong, it’s discomforting too, slightly cringeworthy. So it was with Ian Hart, the actor who played Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant in the first two-hour opener of Vinyl, the Martin Scorcese/Mick Jagger dramatisation of sleazy goings on in the seventies rock business, that appeared on our TV screen this week.Unlike Robert De Niro, who ate a mountain of pasta to put on several stone for his role as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Hart wasn’t quite so dedicated, so he actually appears quite a bit shorter and not much heavier than those who recoil at his furious effing and blinding. In a brief scene copied almost word for word from Grant’s famous cameo in The Song Remains The Same – the one where he berates a promoter for permitting the sale of unauthorised merchandise inside a venue – Grant comes over not so much menacing as irritating, like one of those annoying short fat people who shout and scream a lot because that’s the only way they can be heard. Anyone confronted with the real angry Peter Grant knows how much more menacing he truly could be when he wanted.
Unlikely as it may seem, the premise is that in 1973 Grant might sign Led Zeppelin to the fictitious label American Century instead of staying with Atlantic. Negotiations having evidently reached stalemate, a bit later he’s seen in their New York offices throwing a gigantic wobbly because the owners of the label might sell out to a German company. “My fucking nan has a piece of shrapnel in her fucking arse thanks to those Nazi bastards,” is the gist of his complaint, but in this scene, which climaxes with ‘Grant’ sending a plate of bagels across the room, he’s wearing a dark suit, not an item of clothing I ever saw Peter wearing in my day. Maybe the real Peter once wore a suit like this as a mark of respect to Jagger – but that’s about as likely as Peter ever accepting anything less than 100% of what Zeppelin was owed.
It’s things like this – and an actor who plays Robert Plant, backstage, sounding more Australian than West Midlands – that make me recoil from productions like Vinyl. No matter how hard they try – and this one does try hard – they can’t quite get it right. Better, I think, not to have bothered with the ‘Zep might have signed with Century’ storyline, especially as it’s a subplot to the main story.
That story hinges on whether or not the label chief, Richie Fenestra (Bobby Cannavale), can sell his once successful label to a German conglomerate for $millions when it’s on the skids, propped up by crooked book-keeping and artists long past their sell by date. Flashbacks reveal Fenestra’s beginnings in the industry, sleazy suits from the fifties having indoctrinated him into the industry’s dubious royalty accounting methods very early on. In this way we are led to believe that the music business has been riddled with corruption since the fifties, which is probably true, at least as far as the black R&B performers from that era are concerned.
The only hope for Fenestra’s American Century seems to lie with a sparky drug-dealing assistant in the A&R department (Jamie, played by Juno Temple) who discovers a punk rock band called Nasty Bits led by nihilistic singer Kip Stevens, played in appropriately surly fashion by Jagger’s son James. “What do you care about?” she asks him after a vigorous shag. “Fucking,” he replies. “I don’t give a fuck about anything else.” A light goes on in our A&R girl’s head, the same one that illuminated Malcolm McLaren methinks.
The production has been compared with Mad Men, but although the soundtrack, clothes and other props are authentic the dialogue is often clichéd and nowhere near as cool. The mid-morning stiff whiskey enjoyed by Don Draper and his advertising agency pals is exchanged for snorts of cocaine, of course, and the warning about strong language and adult themes is more than justified. There’s sex, drugs and cussing galore, and even a grisly murder. Most of the characters in the music business look like the notorious manager Dee Anthony; short, fat, bearded, stroppy and a bit shady, a cross between Mafiosi and the kind of slick-suited promotion men who handed over packets of white powder, $100 bills and introductions to hookers along with the records they wanted DJs to play.
This opening episode was bookended by a New York Dolls concert attended by Fenestra at the Mercer Arts Centre, and the group that portrayed the Dolls certainly made a decent fist of ‘Personality Crisis’. At the end the Mercer comes crashing down, as it did in real life, with Fenestra scrambling from the wreckage, surely a metaphor for the way his life and the series are headed.
I’ll keep watching, if only to see which characters I knew in real life appear next week. Maybe it’ll be an Melody Maker writer.