New York, 1973: Welcome back to Martin Scorcese’s mean(ish) streets, baby. See that sweaty man in the gold chain and the butterscotch leather, hoovering blow like a human Zamboni in reverse? That’s our hero, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), founder and CEO of American Century Records. He’s having a rough week. There’s a business card for a homicide detective in his pocket and a look of blind panic in his dilated pupils. But hey, what’s that sound? There’s a rock show going on, and rock is Richie’s business. The chemicals are hitting his bloodstream and the New York Dolls are onstage churning through their glam gutter-punk anthem “Personality Crisis,” which is fitting because a) Richie’s label is in the midst of a little bit of a personality crisis right now, too, and b) now we’re getting an idea of just how many iconic songs HBO and their production dream team — Scorcese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter, and Rich Cohen — can afford to license for this show. No expenses spared on this club scene, either; there’s a bucket of sequins for every extra and a clothespin for every nipple in the Dolls’ audience.
Cut to a German conference room five days previous, and Richie’s inner monologue, wherein we get a brief résumé: He, much like Drake, started from the bottom; he is a hustler, a striver, and now, after years of struggle, “ridiculously stinkin’ f—in’ rich.” But the man with “a golden ear, a silver tongue, and a pair of brass balls” is not working with his best instincts right now — the label’s had a bad run of signings and indiscriminate spending, and he desperately needs a stock purchase deal with European conglomerate PolyGram to go through. Hence, the Germans. And everybody’s counting on the fact that Richie is about to bring on board a little guitar band called Led Zeppelin.
Can Richie’s right-hand man, Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano, almost unrecognizable in his beard and sideswept bowl cut) help him seal the deal? Cue the Hindenburg jokes, and smash cut to Richie’s private plane and the ride home, accompanied by a trio of Chekov-debating party girls, an eightball, and more cracks from Zak (“Mile high club? I got a blowjob on a bus once, that’s it. I’m in the 4-foot-high club.”)
Back at the New York headquarters, we are introduced to Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), an A&R assistant who, when she’s not handling the label’s lunch orders and cache of class-A narcotics, takes it upon herself to do a little freelance scouting. That means checking out the pouty punk (yep, that’s a Jagger mouth; it’s Mick’s son James) who’s just dropped off his demo tape. She also has the office gossip for schmucks like Clark (Jack Quaid — also A-list offspring, coincidentally) who are worried about their job security in the wake of the German deal.
They’re right to be concerned, because Richie’s meetup with Zeppelin backstage at Madison Square Garden goes about as bad as it can go; Robert Plant and his phenomenally tight pants are not at all pleased with the royalty rate the lawyers have slipped into the new contract. Not a total shocker, maybe, since if we know anything about actual music history, it’s that Led Zeppelin was never destined to spend their ‘70s prime minting money for American Century. But Richie is wrecked when Plant drops the bomb before slithering onstage; he sheds one hot, angry tear and heads out, devastated.
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On the way home, though, his bloodhound instincts for following the music kick in at an off-ramp, and he pulls over to check out a block party whose black denizens are not especially psyched to see a fancy white suit snooping around. One guy in particular flashes a grim look of recognition before telling him to scram; that’s our introduction to Lester Grimes (Elementary’s Ato Essandoh) and a flashback to Richie’s early bartending days, when Lester would become his first management client. The pair bond over their shared love of the blues, and Lester, a.k.a. Little Jimmy Little, has legit chops, but as we’ll learn a few scenes from now, record-industry guys circa 1963 don’t want blues, they want pop, whitewashed and neatly packaged.
NEXT: RIchie has many more problems than that
Back to 1973, and the very brief introduction of Mrs. Richie. Devon Finestra (Olivia Wilde) only gets a quick scene-setter with the kids at the homestead in Greenwich before we’re back at the label watching the Zeppelin mess officially go down in flames; a management tantrum is thrown, an innocent platter of fresh bagels is sacrificed, and the PolyGram deal is officially dead.
Ninety-nine problems, and that’s only the first one: Also, Buck Rogers, one of the most powerful guys in radio, is threatening to pull American Century’s artists off the air because of a perceived insult from AC client Donny Osmond. And Richie learns in a meeting that his team passed on ABBA — “some Swedish girl group” — months ago; A&R is stagnating, and the roster’s “like a goddamn Chinese menu, it’s all over the place.”
His go-to guys are too busy eating lunch to find fresh talent, and the only one actually out there hustling is the girl who brought them their roast beef and liverwurst, Jamie — she makes her pitch for Baby Jagger and his Nasty Bits, and Richie is, for five seconds, moderately pleased. Flashback again to the Lester story, and we learn how he got burned by Richie. The CliffNotes: He wanted to sing the blues, the label wanted a skinny Chubby Checker, somebody got screwed.
Back to ’73 again, and we’re at a sex club with Buck Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay, in a Hawaiian shirt and muttonchops that take up 85 percent of his face), trying to fix the Donny Osmond insult so business can get back on track. Meanwhile, Jamie watches the Nasty Bits destroy a club show, then rubs her own bits together with the frontman and offers him a little postcoital advice: If he wants to be a star, he needs to figure out what his rock & roll schtick is (and maybe go easy on the heroin habit).
We get another scene with the Germans — and another stream of epically uncomfortable WWII references — before zooming over on Richie’s birthday party, and our first real glimpse into Devon’s world when she runs into an old friend; she used to be wild (Wilde!), but now she’s a good girl in Greenwich: “Clean living and self-denial… Richie and the kids, my heart is full.” Say it like you mean it, Devon. Then a sweet birthday toast, and a story about Devon and Richie missing Woodstock because they were too busy to get out of bed. But the party’s over for Richie when a phone call comes in and he has to rush away to handle this Buck Rogers situation.
Buck and AC’s “independent promotions man” Joe Corso (Bo Deitl) have spent the last 48 hours horking down half of Colombia, and they are flying. In a scene straight out of Boogie Nights end times, Buck talks a whole lot of coke-y nonsense, then pulls a pistol and has just about choked Richie unconscious to the jaunty tune of Hurricane Smith’s “Oh Babe What Would You Say” before a decorative crystal object to the skull finally slows him down. And then he takes a few more blows when he rises again like an amphetamined rhino. RIP Buck. Richie wants to call the cops, but Joe has another plan: Clean up the mess, dump the body, let the cops think it was just another drug deal gone wrong, and then “get on with your f—in’ life.”
The next day at the office, Richie’s still in shock, and there’s that business card from NYPD Homicide waiting for him. But right on top of that, some other news: The PolyGram buyout is miraculously approved, despite the Zeppelin mess — and all to the soundtrack of Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful,” so do with that what you will. Because one more minute and we’re back again in 1963: Richie is selling his early stake in the label that started him, and trying and failing to take his first client, Little Jimmy, with him. This is not good news for Jimmy, who gets the royal shit beaten out of him by the boss’ thugs when he refuses to keep singing the lightweight pop songs they expect. 1973 Richie isn’t okay either, though; he’s racked with guilt and terrified by what he’s done, and in one very melodramatic scene (a failed confession, a furious wife, a smashed guitar) we’re back at the beginning: The car, the cocaine, the New York Dolls. The whole foundation of the building is cracking, and the band literally brings the house down — which suits Richie, who wants everything to be as utterly wrecked as he is.
Suddenly he’s buried in the rubble, and clearly he should be dead, but then of course we’d have no show. So he rises, shakes it off, and lurches away like an extra-resilient survivor of the zombie apocalypse, plaster-strewn and smiling. Richie will live to see another day, and we will get another episode.
What did you think, readers? Will you back too? Or is Vinyl as dead to you as disco and Buck Rogers after a two-day bender?