Directed by Taylor Hackford
Produced by Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch, Jr.
Written by Edward Di Lorenzo
Original Music by Jeff Barry
There were a lot of great performances in 1980. Robert DeNiro took home the Oscar for Best Actor in “Raging Bull.” John Hurt, Jack Lemmon, Peter O’Toole for “The Stunt Man” and Robert Duvall were also nominated. Great actors and great performances all. Now while I’m not suggesting that Mr. DeNiro didn’t deserve to win what I am saying is that it was downright criminal that Ray Sharkey wasn’t even nominated for his white-hot performance in THE IDOLMAKER. Most people remember him as Sonny Steelgrave in the TV series “Wiseguy.” But me, I’ll always think of him as the rock and roll promoter Vincent Vacarri. Apparently somebody did see him in THE IDOLMAKER because he won the Golden Globe that year for it. Ray Sharkey tragically died at the age of 40 but he left behind some truly wonderful performances. For me, THE IDOLMAKER is at the top.
Vincent ‘Vinnie’ Vacarri is busting his hump trying to break into the rock and roll business during the 1950’s. Rapidly approaching 30, he’s working as a busboy in his brother’s restaurant by day and haunting the clubs by night trying to find that Next Big Act that will jumpstart his career. Vinnie’s mother (Olympia Dukakis) wonders why Vinnie doesn’t just record his own songs. Vinnie tells her he’s too old and doesn’t have the heartthrob looks to be a teen idol and that’s what the industry and the public wants. Sure, Vinnie is talented but he doesn’t have IT.
Vinnie goes to a club one night at the urging of his friend, saxophonist Tomaso DeLorussa (Paul Land) to watch his band play. Noticing that Tomaso gets the crowd jumping and jiving more than the band’s lead singer, Vinnie convinces him to become a singer. Vinnie teaches him how to move on stage and changes his name to “Tommy Dee.” Under Vinne’s undeniable genius at marketing, Tommy Dee becomes an overnight teen sensation. Vinnie’s street smarts and know-how of the industry attracts the attention of Brenda Roberts (Tovah Feldshuh) the editor of ‘Teen Scene’ and not just in a business way, if you get what I mean.
Tommy Dee rises like a rocket to the top of the charts and the higher he goes, the more unmanageable he gets. Part of it is rebellion against Vinnie’s near maniacal need to control every aspect of Tommy Dee’s life. Vinnie tells his songwriting partner Gino Pilato (Joe Pantoliano) that they need a backup. Vinnie finds it in Guido (Peter Gallagher) a busboy working at his brother’s restaurant. It doesn’t phase Vinnie in the least that Guido can’t sing or dance. Vinnie’s convinced he can take this no talent kid and teach him how to be a superstar on stage. By now, it’s obvious to Gino, Brenda and Tommy that what Vinnie really wants to do is have somebody he can turn into a sort of avatar so that he can vicariously live out his own unfulfilled dreams of being a star through him. It’s a destructive streak just as poisonous as any drug or alcohol addiction and one that Vinnie is sadly oblivious to.
The thing that sets THE IDOLMAKER apart from other movies of this type is that usually we see it through the eyes of the star. This movie we see through the eyes of the guy who makes the stars what they are. And the thing is that Vinnie is damn good at his job. Maybe too good. Especially with Guido who he renames Caesare and through shrewd manipulation of the media turns the kid into a superstar before he even sings a note.
Ray Sharkey is backed up by some really excellent supporting players that don’t seem to be working that hard at making an impression on the screen but they do. I’ve already mentioned Olympia Dukakis, Joe Pantoliano and Tovah Feldshuh. Keep your eyes open for Marcia Brady herself, Maureen McCormick, who does a really good job playing a surprisingly sleazy reporter specializing in covering teen idols. And the movie wouldn’t work if we don’t buy Paul Land and Peter Gallagher as the teen idols and they sell it. Tommy Dee is an egotistical but likeable jerk we sympathize with for his just wanting to enjoy the success he never really asked for or sought. He doesn’t have the lofty goals that Vinnie has. He just wants to have a good time. Guido is a scared, insecure kid who simply can’t believe he can get out on stage and perform. But he does. Man, does he ever. Peter Gallagher gets the movie’s show-stopping song; “However Dark The Night” and it’s worth waiting for. And speaking of songs, pay attention to “Ooo Wee Baby” playing during the opening and closing credits. It’s sung by Darlene Love who plays Danny Glover’s wife in the “Lethal Weapon” movies. It’s a nice touch to have her vocals in this movie as she was one of Phil Spector’s artists and sang lead on the #1 hit “He’s A Rebel”
The movie is based on the career of rock promoter and manager Bob Marcucci who discovered and promoted Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Mr. Marcucci served as technical advisor on this movie and perhaps that’s another reason why the story and performances are so strong. There’s a solid stream of truth straight down the middle all the way from beginning to end that’s undeniable.
So should you see THE IDOLMAKER? Absolutely. The songs are actually the movie’s weak link as with the exception of “Ooo Wee Baby” “However Dark The Night” and “I Believe It Can Be Done” they’re pretty disposable teen pop tunes that don’t stick to your brain. It’s the story and the performances that sell the movie and worth seeing just on that basis alone. Especially that really terrific Ray Sharkey performance I can’t praise highly enough. Enjoy.