For a while there in the late '70s and very early '80s, American pop culture was in the grips of deja vu: the cinemas offered Grease and The Buddy Holly Story, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley had us in stitches, and seemingly every other song on the radio was a smoothed-out Golden Oldie (thanks for nothing, Linda Ronstadt). Somehow lost in this poodle-skirted shuffle was Taylor Hackford's gritty 1980 musical drama The Idolmaker, which chronicles the teen idol-grooming exploits of a songwriter played by Ray Sharkey.
Maybe it was just the fact that musicals in 1980 were completely D.O.A. as a genre, but The Idolmaker deserved a better fate. The film depicted a generally maligned period in rock history (East Coast-based early '60s teen pop) with panache and bite, showing the effort that goes into building pop singers with a laudable lack of pretense. It's also got some excellent work from the overlooked Ray Sharkey (who earned a Golden Globe award for his performance) and Peter Gallagher, in his film debut. Shout Factory's new release of this rock 'n roll gem outpaces the bare-bones DVD put out by MGM/UA in 2000.
Set in 1959-61, The Idolmaker's lead character is based on a real player in the music biz from that period - Bob Marcucci, a lyricist and talent agent who groomed Frankie Avalon and Fabian to stardom. The names may have been disguised, but there is some enjoyment to be had in spotting the film's many references to real-life people and places on the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles American rock 'n roll scene. The Marcucci figure here is Vinnie Vacarri (Sharkey), a 27 year-old songwriter and part-time waiter who is starting to realize he's getting too old to sustain his dream of becoming a famous singer. At a Philadelphia dive where a raunchy rock combo is playing, he takes notice of the band's saxophone player (Paul Land). Taking the young man under his wing, Vinnie uses his wisdom and experience in the music biz to transform the musician into Tommy Dee, pop idol. In collaboration with his songwriting partner, Gino Pilato (Joe Pantoliano, in his first good-sized movie role), Vinnie teaches Tommy not just the singing style he needs to make it big, but the right dance moves, fashion and grooming as well - the total package. They record a single and shop it around to middle school sock hops and payola-accepting local deejays, but Tommy doesn't truly catch on until Vinnie partners up with Brenda Roberts (Tovah Feldshuh), a savvy teen magazine editor based on gossip queen Rona Barrett. The duo labor hard at playing up Tommy's teen girl appeal, and he becomes a star. Tommy's disposition for hanging out with hoodlums and sleeping with his fans disappoints Vinnie, however, and before long he's scouting out another young man to mentor - a busboy at the restaurant run by his brother. Although the new guy is gawky, strangely proportioned and prone to episodes of stage fright, Vinnie, Gino and Brenda once again do their thing and mold him into Caesare (Peter Gallagher), a pompadoured, darkly handsome rocker. Vinnie keeps Caesare's image even more tightly controlled, debuting him at a concert hall packed with screaming teen girls, then keeping him out of sight for a while. A return engagement in Elvis' hometown of Memphis brings Caesare back into the spotlight, but for Vinnie the success is a hollow victory. He yearns to return to his roots, performing as himself without any artifice.
Taylor Hackford's smooth direction, and impassioned performances from a good cast, make The Idolmaker a worthwhile experience. The story of Sharkey's scrappy character sustains interest, at least in its first half (the Caesare story, an amped-up version of the Tommy saga, doesn't hold up as well). If Jeff Barry's musical score seems too '70s retro bubblegum to be truly evocative of that teen idol period, its liveliness conveys more oomph than period recordings would have done. This film draws a lot of parallels with a personal favorite, Allison Anders' 1996 indie Grace of My Heart. In fact, the Anders film serves as something of a reverse-gender take on The Idolmaker, with the not-Carole-King tunesmith played by Illeana Douglas making her way through the ranks of the '60s music business before finding herself as a confessional singer-songwriter. There's one glaring difference between the two films, however. While the climax of Grace came as a revelation, Vinnie's big "just me and the piano" solo performance seems forced and phony (although, to his credit, Sharkey does a fine job singing in his own voice).
In case it hasn't been made clear, the main reason to check out The Idolmaker is Ray Sharkey. As Vinnie, the actor's nervous energy is the thread that ties the entire movie together; he comes across like a softer, more approachable Al Pacino here. While substance abuse cut short Sharkey's life and career, The Idolmaker stands as evidence of what could have been with this dynamic talent.
The Blu Ray:
Shout Factory's edition of The Idolmaker supplants the 2000 DVD version with a slightly longer cut of the film (by three minutes) and a handful of bonus features, including an enthusiastic audio commentary by director Taylor Hackford.
The Blu Ray edition of The Idolmaker sports a good looking transfer for its 16x9 anamorphic image. The 35MM film stock has the grainy texture typical of circa 1980 big studio pictures, but it's very well-preserved with minimal instances of dirt and specks. Colors are muted yet lifelike, while the darks have a richness without getting murky.
Offered in a choice of 2.0 Stereo or 5.1 Surround, the soundtrack is professionally done albeit inconsistent at times. The musical numbers have a lot more dimension to them than the dialogue scenes, which are cleanly mixed but unremarkable. They did a good job keeping it clean and pleasant. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The main bonus here is a lively Audio Commentary from director Taylor Hackford, who enthusiastically supplies a wealth of fond memories and behind-the-scenes information connected with the production (such as: Matt Dillon was a finalist for the part of Cesare, ultimately not chosen because had no rhythm or singing voice). Also offered is an auto-play Photo Gallery lasting about five minutes, and the film's Theatrical Trailer.
One of the more substantial vintage rock 'n roll movies is a thinly veiled account of the guy behind Frankie Avalon and Fabian - who knew? The Idolmaker follows the travails of an ambitious, songwriting talent scout (brilliantly played by Ray Sharkey) as he molds ordinary youths into teen idols. Taylor Hackford's 1980 almost-a-biopic may fumble a bit in its second half, but it still comes recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.