[For Vinyl “Pilot” or any other recaps on Fetchland, assume the presence of possible spoilers.]
Pilot. Richie Finestra considers selling his struggling record company: Richie reunites with Lester Grimes.
The highly anticipated premiere of Vinyl is finally here. From Executive Producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, along with Boardwalk Empire writer and creator Terence Winter, this one’s stocked with great actors like Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple, Ray Romano… and even Mick Jagger’s son, James Jagger. So, it sounds like it’ll be sexy as hell. Set in the early 70s New York City music scene, the show promises cool clothes along with drugs and sensual indiscretions. There are heroes you love to hate, which Richie (the Bobby Cannavale character) declares about himself right up front; and pertains perfectly to the lead singer of the band Nasty Bits, played by James Jagger. So, we have parallel portraits of a decline and rise in the music business in this “Pilot” episode. But most importantly we’ve got sex, drugs, rock n’ roll… and don’t forget murder for good measure. Gotta throw something in there for the kids after all. Also at a fully engorged two hours, this “Pilot” episode is longer than the majority of feature films.
There are several storylines and time periods, all from the drug-addled Richie’s point of view. So even when he’s screwing a true artist out of his dream it’s Richie who is portrayed as the victim. The hot mess of disorganization is another consequence of Richie’s storytelling style. We jump back and forth between the 70s, 60s, and 50s without consistent transitions. Despite these flaws, the whirlwind pace and pure bastard perspective works for Vinyl. The conflicts twist and spin into several hilarious crescendos, including a homicide, a building collapse, and confrontation over who’s more hateful: Germans or the people who hate Germans?
The main story takes place in 1973 NYC: Richie Finestra (the sex and Brooklyn sandwich Bobby Cannavale) is a sobered record company owner with a gorgeous wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde) and two kids in Greenwich Connecticut, along with an apartment in the city. He’s got a driver but — in one of the show’s funny ironies — when he ends up getting loaded drinking booze from the bottle and snorting eight balls, he drives himself. Richie explains to us that he built his record company, American Century, from years of hard work, exploiting the artists, and cooking the books. His main helpers were Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) and a magic mustached guy named Skip Fontaine. They’ve all three screwed the company with major flops and decades of playing pretend with their bottom line. It’s time to sell the company, so they’re in talks with Polygram AKA “The Germans” to buy the stinker out. The big joke to them is that it’s OK to screw Polygram with this lemon because they’re German and thus it’s reparations. Thing is the sale also screws Richie’s people and his artists; and A&R* reps will likely get either booted from the label or, at the very least, less favorable deals.
At the same time Richie’s attempting to land Led Zeppelin, the hottest band at the time, and for good reason. In fact, it turns out The Germans mainly want to buy his company for this reason. Ironically, when Led Zeppelin’s manager finds out they may be sold to Germans he wants to pull out of the deal because he hates Germans. Their deal was already tenuous because Zeppelin got wind of how Richie might screw them with a low royalties cut. Robert Plant, their lead singer, confronts Richie face to face but it’s not until Plant gets up on stage afterward and starts singing that we see why this actor was cast as Plant. When singing he’s transformed from a prancing dweeb into the real deal… and his performance brings a tear to Richie’s eye at the thought of losing Led Zeppelin.
Another storyline focuses on the American Century sandwich girl and drug purveyor, Juno Temple as Jamie Vine. She meets the lead singer of a band called the Nasty Bits and takes his tape for a listen. Jamie keeps the employees fed and high but her real dream is to join the A&R team and sign new talent. Her discovery of the Nasty Bits inspires Richie and she does seem to really get what gives them potential. In one of the most interesting scenes she and the lead singer, Kip (played by James Jagger) have an after sex convo where she explains that his band sucks… but their emotional impact on the audience was awesome, and that means he could be a star. Then Jamie asks him what he cares about and he says, “Fucking. Fighting. Nothing,” and she says that’s his band persona from now on – he doesn’t give a fuck. As Jamie leaves, Kip is sticking a needle in his arm and the drug dealer tells him to be careful with that stuff. Thing is, Jamie, it’ll really help him with the whole not-giving-a-fuck persona.
Past and present come together for Richie when he hears enticing music and sees a bunch of people dancing outside. So he has his driver pull over… But when he asks a guy who’s “in charge of this area” about the music they pull a gun on him and say he should move along. It’s not his place. When he gets home later Richie listens to Lester Grimes playing and singing on a Blues record and it turns out Lester was the guy standing beside the one with the gun that shunned him. We’re transported to Richie’s memory of discovering Lester, the first artist he ever represented, singing the Blues in a club where Richie worked behind bar. Over the course of the episode we check on the trajectory of Richie representing Lester. First he lets the record company force a new name on Lester, “Little Johnny Little” because he’s so tall. Ha ha. Except it’s not really funny at all. Then that same record company guy makes Lester sing lame dance tunes when all he wants is to sing the Blues. It’s a shit spiral of compromise for Lester; all the while Richie is moving up in the world and ends up with his own record company. Lester, on the other hand, ends up lying in a pool of his own blood when Richie leaves him behind at the now-bought-out old record label where they really must insist he continue singing cha cha cha crap.
It’s clear from Richie’s portrayal that he manages to excuse all this as him “learning the hard way” from his experience with Lester. The record company insisted on shafting Lester, he conveys in his telling. But Richie also tells the Germans about how his company makes money even from their worst artists by making them pay all production costs and assorted “fees” out of their final cut from record sales. He’s mighty proud of how he protects the American Century bottom line by sticking it to the musicians and not quite contrite enough about Lester. Richie seems to think he’s just like any other businessman, but in the process conveniently forgets how much he hurts the very artists he claims to love. Also, there’s something more to this Lester story: Lester’s phenomenal talent was singing and playing the Blues. It didn’t just hurt Lester to deprive him of that; it genuinely robbed the music world of a gifted artist. For someone in Richie’s position, that’s the greatest crime of all.
Richie’s relationship with his wife, Devon, isn’t explored much in the “Pilot” but she does throw him a birthday party against his will. During the party we find out she was a Warhol girl and that they miss her at the Factory. Andy’s been asking after her. Devon claims that her husband and kids have filled her heart to the brim and this life in Greenwich, Connecticut is all she needs to be happy. But we recognize that faraway look in her eyes. She misses the high life. In a later scene Richie loses all control and starts drinking again. He offers the bottle to Devon and she pretends to drink but then spits it in his face instead, so then Richie hits the road and buys an eight ball just to seal in the juicy goodness of his sobriety lapse.
What sets him off onto this loony trek? The craziest scenes are with Andrew Dice Clay’s Buck Rogers, the radio guy moneymaker who’s in conflict with American Century because of “that bastard Donny Osmond,” whom they represent. Apparently Donny pissed Buck off and ever since Buck’s been stuffing coke in his nose and raging about it nonstop. Buck’s on a power trip and plans to boycott all American Century artists so they’ll get no radio play. That means no money and potentially no deals too. Richie takes a meeting with Buck in a sex club surrounded with naked writhing duos, threesomes and so on. It’s a hilarious scene where they discuss the Osmond’s asthma and whether or not Buck’s face resembles an asshole, which it kinda does. Richie brought his buddy Joe Corso to the meeting, an “independent promoter” who brings coke for Buck and appears to have mob ties.
After their meeting Richie goes to his surprise birthday party during which he gets a call from Joe that Buck is finally ready to strike a deal with him now that he’s on day three of his coke binge. Andrew Dice Clay delivers an eerily realistic egotistical cokehead gone mad. He repeats that Richie has to “face his fears,” a zillion times with such fervor and sincerity you gotta wonder if the guy really was out of his mind during filming. After his tirade Buck shoots a hole in his TV screen. Then Buck and Richie fight with Richie nearly choking to death until Joe intervenes with a microphone trophy to the back of Buck’s head. They think they killed Buck but as they search for something to hide his body in, Buck attacks them from behind so they really do have to kill him — with intent this time. Richie says they should call the cops and say it was self defense. But Joe says no way this looks like self defense. They gotta clean it up and get rid of the body. Joe knows how they can dump it and make it look like “just another drug deal gone bad,” so that’s the last we’ll see of Andrew Dice Clay as Buck. It was a blast while it lasted.
We’re transported at the end of the episode to a coked up Richie in the Mercer Arts club seeing The New York Dolls perform. The ceiling and walls split and come down on the audience who are all so caught up and oblivious in their love of the music that they don’t notice until the pipes also start bursting and spraying water on them. Then the stage lights come crashing down and the whole building collapses into an enormous crumble of smoke and rubble. After it settles we can discern Richie flat on his back, alive and dusty as fuck. He stumbles out of the wreckage and down the cobblestone street but he’s smiling because of the music in his head. In the after show back story we find out that the Mercer Arts Center actually did collapse but just during a rehearsal, not a performance and not with The New York Dolls either. But it’s cool to take artistic license for the sake of art and right on theme for Vinyl.
Vinyl delivers mad fun, fantastic music, and fab costumes with the sexy pairs Cannavale/Wilde and Temple/Jagger at the helm. It’s perfect timing for a show set in 1970s NYC with the current bellbottom boho fashion explosion and every art gallery in the city hanging up pics from this era on their walls right now. But the real acid test of any show lies with story. You can’t stay hot on TV without strong ass writing and a bullet train narrative. Can Vinyl’s story hold up? Some of the signs are there. We’ve got cliffhanger questions after the two hour “Pilot,” like how’s Richie going to avoid the homicide detective already on his tail about Buck’s murder? Will he keep boozing and coking his days away? Will the American Century buyout go through after all? What bands are we going to see in the next episode? Scorsese directed the “Pilot” so it’s possible things could go downhill from here but either way it’s worth it to tune in for all the sexy beasts onscreen and the rad tunes to boot.
* Artists and repertoire.The division of a record label or music publishing company that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters.