Season 1, Episode 1 - "Pilot"
Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm
This show is a Martin Scorsese show. It does a lot of very Martin Scorsese things. Not bad Martin Scorsese things, but Martin Scorsese things all the same. It’s solid, entertaining, not at all original, but we’re going to watch it all the same. Because: Martin Scorsese.
As per example: Some bad shit’s going down in a car, and this well-dressed dude isn’t looking too good. Scores some drugs, trembles at the business card of a detective he has on him for some reason, gets ready to pull the metaphorical trigger when all of a sudden; YOUTH! Screaming, laughing, clambering over his car in their virile enthusiasm for life. Colorful and confident and carefree, they’re a 1970s ad for living your best life even if you have genital herpes! Well-dressed dude exits the car and follows them. It’s a dark warehouse of wonders, from men in tight skirts to public blowjobs. The music is hypnotic; it pulls him in. It throbs, it pulses, it’s a world unto itself. It’s the New York Dolls, and they literally bring the house down. Well-dressed dude wakes up in the rubble. He remembers rock ‘n’ roll.
Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is the 1973 record executive version of Henry Hill, from the started-from-the-bottom, to the paid-my-dues to the “As far back as I can remember” voiceover to the sneezed-and-half-his-brain-came-out cocaine use. His label, American Century, is hemorrhaging money, and the only way he and his two right hands (both of whom stroke his…ego equally) Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), head of promotions, and Skip Fontaine (P.J. Byrne) head of sales, can stay ahead is by selling it to the German Polygram suits. If everything goes smoothly, the three amigos get out with plenty of money. But how did it come to this point? The day the music died was a long time coming.
From this flashback, we zoom even further back to watch Finestra’s story unfold. Though he’s in the process of giving up his label, he still has to deal with the day-to-day headaches that make music as unglamorous as his former Warhol-babe wife is now, stuck in Connecticut with two kids. Finestra wants more, more, more. His A&R reps are useless men in sweater vests who wouldn’t know soul if it made a deal with them at a crossroads. Enter, The Girl. Of course it’s the bright-eyed, bushy-haired girl rep whose going to introduce them to new meat. Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) and her drawer of psychedelic goodies runs into Kip Stevens (James Jagger), “But that sounds like Cat Stevens?” at the receptionist’s desk at American Century Records. He’s all sneering Jagger lips and dirty leather, trying to hawk his band Nasty Bits. (Incidentally, the Jagger lips aren’t a coincidence, as he happens to be the son of a certain noted producer of the show.) Jamie notes Kip’s sneering at the lobby music of Slade, who are apparently so over in 1973, as well as his genetically passed on swagger. She tells Finestra in the A&R meeting that she thinks he’ll be The Next Big Thing simply because she liked his look. After passing on and insulting everyone else in the room, Finestra exclaims that’s exactly what he wants, a moment both cliché and believable, because of course a struggling label has to have something worthy to look at for promotional purposes, and of course a girl would notice attitude before talent or lack-of. (Duh, that’s all girls are good for in music anyway, right?)
Nasty Bits channel the Sex Pistols in a live show that gets them booed at, spat on, and attacked, all of which is a big turn-on for Jamie. On a brighter note, she leaves after getting her satisfaction with a plan to shape Kip’s whole band persona. It’s gratifying to see a woman get her own, and bypass the easy role to fill of a groupie. Jamie might end up being the secret star of the show if her rise doesn’t mirror Finestra’s and end with the inevitable crash. It would be so refreshing to see the ingénue crush all those in her path, rather than be crushed by the big bad boys.
Besides lazy lackeys, Finestra also has to deal with one of the biggest radio personalities Buck Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay) refusing to play music by any of the label’s artists because of a slight from Donny Osmond. Finestra grudgingly sends a “thug”, Johnny Corso (Bo Dietl) to soothe Buck, which leads to a disastrous two-week bender where Buck ends up calling Finestra to his home on Finestra’s birthday, attempts to kiss him, then tries to strangle him. While getting him off Finestra’s nuck, Corso accidentally kills Buck Rogers. Then again, this is a Martin Scorsese show, so naturally, Buck isn’t really dead, and tries again to strangle Finestra. Corso then bashes his head in to a bloody pulp, and the two of them have to get rid of the body. Cue chorus: this is a Martin Scorsese show.
Which is how we end up in the car with Richie and a personality crisis is what’s hot, frustration and heartache is all he’s got. This storyline goes further back, to a man named Lester Grimes, whom Finestra molded as the next Little Richard. While Finestra agreed to help Grimes produce his real passion (the blues), he instead sold out Grimes, whose contract ended up in the hands of the bad white men and his career went to hell. A chance encounter with Grimes reminds him of this, as Finestra follows the sound of sweet, soul hip-hop, runs into Grimes, and is driven out at gunpoint.
This is one of the many ways in which the pilot shows us that through Finestra’s embarking on this path to rule rock ‘n’ roll, he virtually destroyed it for himself. The deep focus on Finestra’s ennui is cleary because he realizes how much he has become the system he scoffed at; his history with Grimes only confims this. The juxtaposition of blues and soul as Finestra flashes backs, from James Brown to Ruth Brown, are the moments that indicate his deeper, truer connection to rock ‘n’ roll over the commercial, polished tones of “corporate” rock ‘n’ roll like Foghat and Donny Osmond that comprise his business. It creates a soundtrack of feeling that really hits the beats that action and dialogue can’t create, such as the use of Otis Redding’s, “Mr. Pitiful”, to highlight Finestra’s state and simultaneously lampoon him. The music’s merciless in the way it corners and taunts Finestra, rather than creating sympathy for him; it shows us how little Richie feels about himself as well.
Music is used both as exposition and transition throughout the episode, as when Finestra is summoned to the Buck Rogers’ mansion of debauchery to the sound of Black Sabbath’s, “Iron Man”, because he truly has, “lost his mind”. It’s further echoed in his first death fake-out because, “is he alive or dead?” Cuing up the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein”, with the black and white film Frankenstein during Buck Rogers’ freak out was also a nice touch.
There’s a lot of gratuity, but setting the series in 1973 kind of allows that. Hey, it’s the music business! Why not an orgy, or 12! Drugs? I’ve got plenty. Which is where the real-people cameos come in. They function as comic relief for younger audience members while allowing the older ones to fantasize about the good old days. Isn’t Robert Plant the grizzled old man who plays in a mom-rock band? Lordy no, he’s the angel with blond ringlets and crop top who’s just pure sex. Integrating the real life personalities and troubles of notable members within this scene as part of the on-going story allow Vinyl to hold on to a bit of credibility in this fantasy dream world Marty S. clearly wishes he could be part of. Just as Sam Kinison was the secret rock star of comedians, Jack Black, of actors, Martin Scorsese is of directors.
Vinyl’s a show about music, but it can’t be stressed enough that it’s a Martin Scorsese show about music. The story’s simple, and there’s never going to be anything too groundbreaking or mind-blowing about it, but it ‘ll be carefully paired with the music that will make it stand out. Little girl innocent at the record label discovers a band that can’t play music but will be infamous because of how they act and how audiences respond to them? She is the perfect vehicle to draw out the sleaze and sex of the era. Clueless yes-men laughing at ABBA at the office? This is why the business is sinking, because the Swedes they laugh at are on the brink of taking over the world, and while Finestra can recognise the hit before it’s a hit, his yes-men can’t.
In the end, Vinyl’s the story of a man who’s lived his whole life in music, who’s a big executive that really only cares about the blues. They are literally the soundtrack to his life and his predicament, and they provide the real-life basis for rock ‘n’ roll as a teaching tool for the audience. Any old time you use it, it’s gotta be rock and roll music. Happy Valentine’s Day, from Martin Scorsese to us er, rock ‘n’ roll.