Based on the real-life experiences of Bob Marcucci, the rock-music impresario who led Frankie Avalon and Fabian to teen-idol fame in the 1950s, this heavily fictionalized drama is forever on the cusp of becoming as formulaic and trite as the average made-for-TV biopic. Happily, the innate skills of the participants elevate the material just enough to keep The Idolmaker interesting, and the way the protagonist comes across as a hard-driving prick neutralizes any accusations that the piece is mere hagiography. Another reason The Idolmaker merits attention is that it marked the big-screen debuts for several notables: In addition to being the first feature directed by Taylor Hackford, who broke big two years later with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), this movie introduced actors Peter Gallagher and Joe Pantoliano.
Primarily set in New York City, The Idolmaker follows the adventures of Vincent Vacari (Ray Sharkey), an ambitious songwriter who realizes that his ethnic look and receding hairline will prevent him from becoming a star. Channeling his energies into talent management, Vincent discovers swaggering sax player Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land), then gradually transforms the young man into a heartthrob with the stage name “Tommy Dee.” Success follows, as do problems. Tommy’s ego grows out of control, and he dallies with underage groupies. Meanwhile, Vincent develops a love/hate relationship with Brenda Roberts (Tovah Feldshuh), editor of a teen-idol fan magazine—instead of collaborating with Brenda, Vincent competes with her. Like so many people in show business, Vincent suffers from a mixture of insecurity and vanity, because he can’t reconcile his behind-the-scenes success with his desire to perform onstage. Eventually, Vincent grooms a new foundling, Guido (Peter Gallagher), into Caesare, using a hype campaign to create the impression that Caesare is a star before he’s performed in public. The mind games that Vincent plays with Guido/Caesare push tensions in Vincent’s life to a breaking point.
Featuring original songs penned by Brill Building stalwart Jeff Barry, The Idolmaker has authenticity to spare. Hackford shoots concert scenes well, and he shapes performances meticulously. The movie’s a bit too squeaky-clean, giving drug use and illicit sex the arm’s-length treatment, and the script (credited to Edward Di Lorenzo) falls into predictable rhythms. Gallagher’s performance is a problem, as well. Attacking scenes way too vigorously, he shows his lack of experience. However, this is Sharkey’s movie from top to bottom. Reaching a career pinnacle that earned him a Golden Globe, Sharkey incarnates a very specific kind of fast-talking hustler, while also showing aspects of sensitivity and wounded pride that make the songwriting aspect of the character believable.
The Idolmaker: GROOVY