Movies We Like
In the 1970s, nostalgic pangs were for a time before rising gas prices, recession, Watergate and Vietnam. Such a time was the fabulous '50s. (For the nostalgic type, the '50s end in ’63 with the Kennedy assassination, the day the music died). Cinema captured it all throughout the decade, and the music of the '50s was at the core of films like American Graffiti, Grease, The Buddy Holly Story, The Wanderers, and even National Lampoon’s Animal House. By 1980 the craze was over, which explains why the otherwise terrific film The Idolmaker wasn’t as big a hit as the others.
It was kinda-sorta based on the life of music manager Bob Marcucci, who helped fill the pop idol scene with Elvis wannabes Frankie Avalon and Fabian. They may not have been as important as The King, but they sold some records and their handsome pictures were on plenty of teenyboppers' bedroom walls. The film isn’t a straight bio, but Marcucci served as a technical advisor to first-time feature director Taylor Hackford, who would go on to have a big career himself, with flicks like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray.
Here Marcucci is called Vincent Vacari (played wonderfully by Ray Sharkey), a tuxedoed waiter who's also a passionate songwriter. Though he’s a hustler - in that 1950s Italian-American New Yorker kind of way - and he has talent for music, he doesn’t believe he has the right look to pursue a career as a singer. Aided by a piano player (Joe Pantoliano in his first film) and a teen magazine editor (Tovah Feldshuh), with whom he also gets involved romantically, Vincent spots a street-smart sax player with a lot of swagger and the look, whom he decides to groom as his protege and rename Tommy Dee (Paul Land). Tommy is more interested in chasing tail, but using Vincent’s songs and moves, he becomes a pop sensation. But Tommy is uncontrollable and only in it for the quick buck; his fame goes to his head and he leaves Vincent to do a cowboy TV series (not before Vincent stops him from aggressively seducing a fourteen year old fan - something 1980s audiences apparently only thought of as bad manners, whereas in today’s eyes, it’s very disturbing).
Vincent finds his next face in a shy bus-boy named Guido whom he rechristens Caesare (a young Peter Gallagher in his first film, who would go on to have a nice career in films like Sex, Lies & Videotape and American Beauty, usually playing smugly handsome guys). Despite a lot of difficulties, he manages to groom the kid into another big star, but again the grasshopper rebels against the master, with drunk driving and an affair with a reporter (Marcia Brady herself, the grown-up Maureen McCormick). Losing his young idols and the girlfriend, Vincent is left with only himself, and like Rocky or The Bad News Bears, he learns it’s not about winning, but being true to himself and all those other rock ‘n roll clichés.’ Yeah, it’s all a little predictable, but the ride there is a lot of fun.
All the songs were written for the film with a filter on them; the music and stage performances are questionable as something you would really hear in the 1950s. Other than the saxophones, Tommy Dee’s big hit “Sweet Little Lover” sounds more like something The Monkees would sing, a generation later. Caesare’s big gospel song feels straight out of Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special, while Vincent’s final song that he croons for himself would be right at home with '70s AM gold acts like Eric Carmen and Barry Manilow. But it’s actually a good thing, because instead of warmed-over Sha Na Na, we are treated to what feels like more vibrant, fresh material.
Everyone fills their roles well, but Ray Sharkey gives one of those star-making performances, for which he scored a Golden Globe nomination. He kind of resembles and has the energy of a young Bruce Willis, without the big star looks. The '80s should have been his time to take off, but his follow-up movies did nothing for him (has anyone ever seen James Toback’s Love & Money with Sharkey and Ornella Muti of Flash Gordon fame?). Within a couple years he was down to playing fifth-bill to Lorenzo Lamas in the uninspired dancical Body Rock. He would get some acclaim for supporting turns in the cult television series Crime Story and Wiseguy, but otherwise had no films of any lasting significance. All of this wasn’t helped by the serious drug habit he picked up, revealed by a notorious heroin and coke bust at a Canadian airport, before he finally died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 41. Another sad “what could and shoulda been” story.
Through cable and then video tapes, The Idolmaker would go on to find a small but fervent audience of fans, making it one those original ‘video store cult films.’ And the rock-bio has lived on to be a reliable well from which Hollywood could draw stories, but as the baby boomers have aged out of the main target audience, that special reverence for the first wave of rock n’ roll acts has lost its mystical shine. There really is something to be said about the era when hustlers could still muscle their way into a scene that would eventually be taken over by careful gatekeepers. Of course there have always been “idolmakers” like Marcucci, but he is presented here as a guy who was doing it because he loved music, not as the usual quick-buck charlatan we’ve seen since.