Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by George Mastras
* For a review of the next episode, “Yesterday Once More” – click here
This Martin Scorsese-Mick Jagger produced HBO show starts out with a pilot directed by Scorsese himself. Everyone’s been anticipating this slice of nostalgia, along with all the grim, grit, the glitz and the glam side by side.
Vinyl begins in New York City, 1973. Richie Finestra (Bobby Canavale) sits in his car, drinking from a bottle not far from a few homeless, some prostitutes, and other such people littering an alleyway. A man from the corner asks what Richie wants, to which he replies a “quarter“; of coke, that is. Turns out Richie doesn’t have a job anymore, so it appears. He wipes a bit of coke across his teeth, seemingly calming himself. He can’t find anything to do a line off, so he tears off his rear-view mirror, lines one off – a big one – and uses a cop’s business card to straighten it up, then snorts it quick. Afterwards, he even calls the cop from Homicide Division, but a bunch of young people running to a club disrupt him, even hurtling over the top of his car. He puts the phone’s receiver down to go check out where all the kids are rushing. Instead of standing in line, Richie barges through, but not before a bouncer who knows him says: “Clean your nose.”
Inside, overdose cases are carried away, blowjobs going down in the hall and even a big fat guy in underwear stands by the side. Further in Richie finds the music rocking, people of all kinds jamming to the music. Front and center is a band wailing hard – The New York Dolls playing “Personality Crisis” – the androgynous lead singer with lipstick belting out lyrics, a long-haired guitar player chopping riffs, all the while people jump and pulse to the songs. It’s as if Richie is hearing something else others aren’t, as if he can see something happening in front of his eyes; he spaces out, staring into the band and blown away. Meanwhile, the place is so loud and boisterous the lights above the stage are bouncing, everything is chaotic, and Bobby finds himself literally at the middle; a metaphor for being in the very middle of the scene.
Skip to Richie in a nice white-grey suit at the head of a table, gold lighter in hand. His narration tells us: “I earned the right to be hated.” They’re in Germany, earlier in 1973. It’s clear to us now Richie has a bit of an ego at this point. Plus, his raging drug problem, as evidenced from the start, is obviously a sticking point.
Now we’re introduced to the others. First, Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) who heads around with cash and cocaine to a radio station; he and the DJ take a rip off a spinning record, doing business. Second, there’s Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie) who helps Richie offload records that don’t sell and get sent back. Usually those end up in the river, or somewhere else unlikely, which translates into profit for the label, American Century Records. At this point, though, their label is in lots of trouble. Time to cut and run.
The trio heads off after talking with the Germans looking to buy the label. We’re slowly leaning into the decadence of the 1970’s rock n’ roll music scene, as Richie and his crew board their own private jet, drinking, girls in tow. At this point in time they’re trying to sign Led Zeppelin to their label. And while Richie recognizes they’re in this whole mess because of the jet, the expenses, all that, Skip follows this with: “Let‘s do some coke.”
Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) wanders off a subway train. She sits at a bench, and next to her a shady guy lays down his bag; she does the same, taking his with her as she goes. Up to a beautiful, luxurious building goes Jamie with a cardboard tray full of fast-food and soda – this is American Century Records. The receptionist at the front desk deals with a guy from a band named Kip Stevens (James Jagger) – then Jamie takes over, as she apparently works in A&R.
In her desk drawer, Jamie piles a ton of drugs from uppers, downers, coke to marijuana, pre-rolled joints and all sorts of things. Then she listens to a tape from Kip, but Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) shows up for an ounce of weed. Amazing office to imagine, and I’m sure there were these situations in the 1970’s throughout many different label offices. Further than that we’re entrenched in the record business here, as Jamie and Clark discuss what happens if the shop gets sold off and try to figure out how they’re going to stay afloat. Zeppelin’s signed to the label, though, as Clark says: “Richie signed them.”
Another character is brought in now, Julie Silver (Max Casella). We witness him have a terrible phone call before tossing things around his office, tearing up his desk, all in front of the rest of the staff. Seems he’s feeling the hot water start to boil like everyone else.
Down at a club on 33rd and 7th, Richie has to deal with a bit of nastiness. Apparently there are bad things happening at the venue where Led Zeppelin is playing. Richie finds Robert Plant (Zebedee Row) and they discuss what the problem is, and it’s money, money, money. Although, Richie tries his best to cool things off. Then he finds out things are worse than ever, as Zeppelin clearly ain’t happy with ACR. Loving the inclusion of some famous names. I dig Row’s portrayal of Plant, even if it’s only a brief couple moments. Short yet awesome scene watching Zeppelin from Richie’s perspective, as Plant dances around the stage and wails his beautiful voice, Jimmy Page (Harrison Cofer) rips the guitar. Still, Richie almost cries knowing the band is lost to them pretty much.
Headed to Greenwich Village, a driver takes Richie past a black neighbourhood. There he sees people dancing in the streets, music playing. He wants to know what the music is, who’s in charge. A gun gets pointed in his face and a man looks as if he appears to know Richie. But off goes the car and Richie’s left wide-eyed. He heads home and listens to a recording session, as he kicks back. He’s listening to Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) – we flash to where Richie is working at a bar, as Lester plays the guitar to pieces, singing onstage with a tight blues band jamming out a great tune. The history between these two is laid out, so that after a little while we can understand why Lester wasn’t too eager to have Richie stop off at the club where he and his people were enjoying themselves. Obviously Richie screwed him over. We’ll figure out more as the episodes run on.
The cocaine, the extravagant living, the staying out all night – it takes a toll. Richie gets a call from his wife at home, Devon Finestra (Olivia Wilde). He says when the deal finally goes through their relationship will get better, he’ll be home more and so on.
But right now he has more pressing issues at hand. Peter Grant (Ian Hart), of Led Zeppelin management, is flipping his lid at the ACR office. He isn’t happy about the Germand buying ACR, calling them “Nazi bastards” over and over. Naturally, we’re barely 40 years on from the Second World War in ’73, so some people, certainly the British, had issues with Germans even then. And Riche is pretty pissed, too. His team isn’t all pulling their weight, such as Scott Levitt (P.J. Byrne) who nearly faces the full wrath of Richie. But it all comes out ACR was leverage for a better deal.
Into the pictures comes Frank ‘Buck’ Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay), a radio station owner. A situation with Donny “fucking” Osmond pops up, which ends as Frank threatening to boycott the ACR label entirely; zero play on any of their albums. So Richie decides he’s got to take the reins, setting shifty deeds and above board promotions into motion. Zak, Scott and Skip are left holding all the shit. Mostly.
No good news from the boardroom either. Clark, Julie and the rest are pounded into the dirt by Richie, who isn’t happy with their performance. Sadly, Richie is not a great dude. He is very flawed, and seems to take his issues out on others. While cooking the books he comes down on his employees who are trying their hardest. Then Jamie seizes her moment saying she has a band she’ll be checking out, lying that she “saw the singer on the subway and liked his look“; we know where she found them, though. Richie doesn’t give her much credit all the same, calling her a “sandwich girl” when the actual title she holds is Assistant in A&R. Oh, the times!
Lester Grimes is going through the motions in a flashback to earlier times. Nobody wants blues, apparently. Richie and his boss Maury Gold (Paul Ben-Victor) suggest he record under another name – “Little” Jimmy Little – doing something other than blues. Later, he’ll be allowed to do the blues once those albums sell. What we’re seeing here is a more innocent, untouched Richie, whose time in the business has obviously altered who he is fundamentally. Also, it is the beginning of the end of the relationship between Lester.
Back to ’73. Jamie is down at a club listening to Kip and his band. They’re bombing, mostly due to people heckling, throwing bottles. Until Kip starts a fight and jumps into the crowd, throwing headbutts and punches galore. A riot nearly breaks out, as Kip and his guitar player crack unruly fans in the face with instruments. Later, Jamie beds Kip and tells him he needs to cultivate a “persona“, something akin to Iggy Pop or someone similar. Being hated by a crowd? Not the worst thing in the world. A visceral reaction is good in the rock world. Except Kip also has a heroin issue, so that might be the beginning of his end right there, too.
At a wild sex club of some sort, Richie meets with Buck who is a true piece of shit. The conversation is mostly Rogers talking and talking, yelling, cursing. I’ve got to say, Andrew Dice Clay does a solid job with the character; I didn’t know he had it in him. He does more than bring out the terrible side of Rogers, he actually makes a solid character out of it all. I never thought there’d be subtlety coming from Clay, yet there it is with him being both out of control and also contained at various times.
Flashback to the recording studio where Richie has Lester in the booth performing as “Little” Jimmy Little, doing a bunch of fluffy tunes that are clearly not his style. They’re using him to do a bunch of doo-wop sounding songs. Tragic to see an obviously talented man having to resort to doing what he doesn’t want to do. Not to mention there’ll be a fallout somewhere along the line between Lester and Richie. Seeing Richie paralleled from ’73 to his recent past is amazing, as we can tell he’s fallen a long way off. Also, maybe he’s getting what he deserves in the future. Karma is a real bitch.
In ’73, Richie’s being thrown a birthday party. He isn’t too keen on it, but he’s there for now. We do get a sense from Devon she was once a party girl, knowing Andy Warhol and that whole entourage. But she tells a friend: “My heart is full.” Riche also gets an amazing present from his friends – a guitar once owned by “The Originator himself“, a.k.a Bo Diddley (Kareem Bunton), who we see in a great sort of psychedelic scene playing away. Love the way this whole pilot episode is shot. It has typical Scorsese aspects, then a whole lot of throwback style filmmaking overall.
From his party, Richie is contacted by Joe Corso (Bo Dietl). He and Rogers are still up, two days straight, coked to the gills. Apparently Richie has to go and take care of things, right in the middle of a celebration.
Cut quick back to Lester – he is not happy getting no pay, as the records aren’t selling. Richie has a load of excuses, while Lester “just wants to sing” and he isn’t getting the deal they made “four years ago“. We hear talk of Richie starting his own label, taking Lester along for the ride. Is that what breaks them? Perhaps Lester never ever was taken with ACR. Seems very likely.
In ’73 again, Richie heads to Rogers’ place on Long Island. Buck is busy playing drums along with Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on the stereo. The scene there is fairly hostile, as Buck is lit up high on cocaine, insulting Richie almost right off the bat. After a few minutes, out comes a gun, but Corso talks Buck down; seems he was just fooling around. But one thing leads to another and soon enough Buck lays a kiss on Richie, prompting a good punch. A fight breaks out and then Corso ends up cracking Buck over the head a couple times with a small award statue. Rogers bleeds out on the floor, his head split open. And now a terrifying situation takes hold of the two left behind. Buck ain’t dead yet, though. It takes another bit of beating until the job is finished completely; an impressive level of violence and a graphic couple head shots later.
After the body is dumped and rid of, Richie is back at the ACR office. He can’t particularly focus, as Jamie talks of Kip and his band, then his colleagues reveal the news of the Germans buying their label. But he says he doesn’t “feel so good“. Probably because he’s now a murderer, or at the very least a brutal accomplice to murder.
We cut to the past once more. Gold has money problems, which obviously affects Richie, Lester, and anyone else connected to the label for which they work. They’re in league with mobster Corrado Galasso (Armen Garo), who only wants the money he’s owed. Then Richie pipes up hoping to sell his shares of the label, which are worth more than he’ll sell for, and this interests Galasso. Richie further tries to get Lester out, but Galasso claims “he stays“. The money takes Richie away and clearly this is where he and Lester come apart at the seams. What ends up happening is that Lester gets roughed up hard by the mob after refusing to record shitty popular music, beaten with bats and kicked in the balls. Followed by his throat getting damaged horribly; likely a broken windpipe. It’s a devastating scene to watch.
Switch to Richie’s present time. He hears a story on the news about a body found with “blunt trauma to the head” and this sends shivers up his spine. Seeing his past intertwined with the present is a sad thing. Nearing the end of the episode, Richie has a confrontation with Devon, after his son sees him rocking around the room, obviously drunk, high, out of control, and playing the Bo Diddley guitar. She is unimpressed, as you can imagine: “Our life isn‘t enough for you,” Devon tells him in quiet anger. Before leaving she spits a mouthful of liquor in his face, and then he proceeds to smash the television with his new instrument.
The finale of the pilot brings us back to where the episode began, with Bobby high on coke and watching The New York Dolls. The show is so loud and wild that the ceiling is starting to crumble, the lights about to fall, yet Bobby continues rocking out hard alongside everyone else. Everything eventually collapses to the ground, as people flee; all a true story, slightly changed, but certainly it happened at The Mercer Arts Center in 1973. What a way to finish an episode, and the first at that.
We close on the demolished club, lights still flickering here and there. Amongst the rubble is Richie, covered in dust and debris, wood, everything. He emerges from the rocks and the ash, almost like he’s a phoenix rising out of the flames. He’s alive, he isn’t really injured. Could this event become a catalyst for a better Richie? Probably not, but I’m sure this is going to provide a great jumping off point.
Next episode is titled “Yesterday Once More” and after this premiere we go back to regular 50-55 minute episodes. At the same time, I loved this double length pilot. Excited for more wild 1970’s debauchery and rock n’ roll.