There comes a point in certain films – especially those with a heavy historical or cultural context – when the narrative is tasked to follow and expand upon said social element, or to alter its course, rein in its ambitions and shrink the scope of the film down to pursue the character at the center of the story. Sometimes the only option is to cull the grander, less intimate (and certainly more difficult to encapsulate) storyline, even though it may be the more interesting and captivating of the two, simply because the framework of the film wasn't conceived to sustain both elements simultaneously. This is certainly the case with Taylor Hackford's 1980 behind-the-scenes musical drama 'The Idolmaker,' which forgoes a larger examination of the birth of rock 'n' roll, for a micro discussion of one man's contributions in the early days of the genre.
Loosely based on the career of real-life idol maker Bob Marcucci – the man behind such performers a Frankie Avalon and Fabian – 'The Idolmaker' spans the career of Marcucci analog Vincent Vaccari (Ray Sharkey in his Golden Globe-winning performance), as he works his way up from Cuban-heeled nobody, to successful songwriter and manager of increasingly popular acts like Tommy Dee (Paul Land) and the deliberately mysterious, reluctantly press-shy, bushy-eyebrowed teen marvel Caesare (Peter Gallagher in his feature film debut). Hackford, working from a script by Edward Di Lorenzo (though Hackford was responsible for at least two re-writes), tells Vaccari's story in three segments, discussing the notion and origins of fame in a time when the public was hungry for performers with whom they could form an emotional bond. In fact, at the beginning of the film, Vaccari is seen purchasing a stack of movie magazines to better discern the public's taste and help him build a better product. Also noteworthy is that at the time the film was set – 1959 through the early '60s, roughly – the nation's premier teen idol/musical heartthrob, Elvis Presley, was currently enlisted in the Army.
Vaccari is seen not only as a musical wunderkind with a face only a mother could love, but also someone who could sculpt a masterpiece from even the most amorphous lump of clay. His first attempt, Tommy Dee, was in many ways pre-formed, all Vaccari had to do was sand away the rough spots and tailor an act for him. The film depicts this in the form of two hit songs: the incomparably upbeat and catchy 'Here is My Love' and the equally appealing 'Sweet Little Lover' – which Tommy performs on an television show with such panache, he effectively alters the format forever. After finding success with Tommy through equal amounts of blood, sweat, tears, and plenty of payouts to DJs and other promoters, his vaguely mobbed-up father tells Vaccari that any idiot can find success once, but it's a true professional who does it time and again. And with that, he goes about transforming Guido, a young waiter in his brother's restaurant, into the dreamy star and epitome of teen idol-dom Caesare.
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly its musical numbers, which, despite their anachronistic sound (they are more of the decade in which the film was made, rather than the one in which it was set), offer a fun and upbeat spin on the classic movie musical where music is the drive and ambition of the characters, rather than the form their expressions take. And although Land and Gallagher are afforded the opportunity to take part in the film's centerpiece musical numbers, the real star of 'The Idolmaker' is, of course, Ray Sharkey, who imbues his character with so much unrecognized talent that by the time his true feelings self-destructively boil to the surface, it feels inevitable, rather than tragic. There is a phenomenal scene early on when Vaccari has taken Tommy Dee to perform for the first time at a Junior High School dance and as Tommy wows his teenaged fans (girls, mostly) Vaccari can be seen just off stage matching Tommy's performance perfectly. It's a small, but nuanced moment that demonstrates the depth of Vaccari's talent and informs on his character, in terms of his placement in the scheme of things and the recognition (read: adoration) he feels he deserves, and maybe rightly so.
Sadly, the nearest analog 'The Idolmaker' might have, in more modern terms, would be the uninspired Mark Whalberg musical vehicle, 'Rock Star' – which seems to take an inverted view of a man who had the looks and the drive, but his talent was too raw, too in need of being shaped. In a way, that film could just as easily have been about Tommy Dee or Caesare, the stars-in-the-making unknowingly waiting for their idol maker to turn them into something special.
But while Sharkey manages to make Vaccari feel very lived-in with his performance – one that hinted at the greatness that could have been, had the actor's life taken an altogether different route – the remaining characters manage to be little more the ciphers, elements intended solely to progress the plot who wind up further restricting the film's scope by maintaining the not-entirely-undue focus on Vaccari and his transformation from tool of the music business to the man who made the business suit his needs. Though the film is plenty entertaining from the oft-told perspective of a dreamer who makes good, it's the elements of the film which pertain to the industry and burgeoning presence and importance of rock 'n' roll that remain fascinatingly elusive and frustratingly unexplored.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Idolmaker' is another great release from Shout Factory that comes as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard slim keepcase. There are no previews on the disc, so it will go directly to the top menu, which actually plays the track 'Here is My Love' with some impressive sound.
'The Idolmaker' isn't that old, so there's no reason the film shouldn't look good now that it's been mastered in HD, and the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer proves that quite well. The picture here is a clean and vibrant display of a film that tried very hard to capture the look and feel of a specific period in time, and in the 33 years since its release, the image here is now very much of a specific time itself. There is the kind of light grain to the picture that tells the viewer precisely when this film was made. Released in 1980, it's very much a holdover from the '70s and those who enjoy that particular filmic look will certainly appreciate the image here.
For the most part, fine detail is terrific throughout; there are plenty of examples in both close-ups and wider shots where texture and fine lines in the actors' faces are on full display. Primarily though, it's the period-specific clothing that receives the greatest boost from the image's level of detail. From the texture of Tommy Dee's unthreatening cardigan he initially wears to his later, more extravagant and tailored suits, each bit of costuming looks particularly fantastic throughout the film. Color is quite vivid everywhere (though, again, the costumes look particularly great) and though there is a tendency in period films to overdo the saturation, or to make things look particularly bright, there is no evidence of such unwarranted tinkering here. Contrast is quite high, as well, as the image maintains some very nice levels with terrific gradation between the dark and light elements.
Overall, this is a great looking image that can show its age at times, but generally looks terrific.
As you can no doubt guess, the sound on a film like 'The Idolmaker' is of the utmost importance. Thankfully, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that the disc has been given sounds tremendous, especially during the key musical sequences.
Sound here is very robust and evenly balanced; the dialogue is crisp and very easy to hear and understand, even at low volume. There is a good deal of range between the separate channels with the rear speakers picking up some nice atmospheric elements during certain stretches of the film, which gives a boost to the more dialogue heavy portions of the movie. But the most important aspect of the mix is how well it handles the performances by Tommy Dee, Caesare and others. While it's not perfect, and there are some elements that come off as slightly tinny, overall it sounds fantastic.
The music is very clear and strong, from the lyrics all the way down to the various musical instruments. Even the crowd noises sound great and help bring some additional depth to the sound field that genuinely conveys a rich, immersive experience.
This is a great sounding disc that also has a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that also sounds terrific on smaller speakers or a plain television set.
Though very entertaining and worthy of multiple viewings, 'The Idolmaker' still feels like a missed opportunity to really delve into a much more interesting story that could have simultaneously provided insight into the character of Vincent Vaccari and the industry in which he was so determined to be a part of. Instead, we are granted a good character arc that essentially peters out in the third act and somewhat lazily glosses over elements that it should have invested more time in. Still, with great picture and sound, and a fascinating commentary by the director, this one comes recommended.