Judge Gordon Sullivan has been carving tiki statues.
He's got the look…He's got the talent…He's got the Idolmaker…He's got it all!
Andy Warhol once said that, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." He, however, is in the minority. Most arts want to make their art and get enough money to earn a living so they can continue to make their art. That's why we have agents, producers, and managers; they let artists do art while ensuring the artist can still eat. Sometimes, those managers can become as famous—if not more so—than the artists they manage. Colonel Tom Parker obviously doesn't have the name recognition of Elvis Presley, but without Parkern most people wouldn't know who Elvis isn either. Obviously that's an epic example, but in some cases the story of the manager is more interesting than the story of the artists being managed. The Idolmaker banks on that as it profiles Vincent Vacarri, whose life is based on the real-life Svengali behind Fabian and Frankie Avalon. It's a familiar story, but the core of pure ambition makes it an interesting watch.
Vincent Vacarri has ambitions in the world of fifties rock 'n' roll, but he lacks the movie-idol good looks shared by the best of the best. Unable to leave the world of music, Vinnie instead decides to mold the talents of Tommy Dee (Paul Land, Wild Orchid). Finding success there, Vinnie then aims higher, taking an overly hirsute busboy to the top of the charts as Caesare (Peter Gallagher, While You Were Sleeping).
A number of films in the 1980s were concerned with that transition between the early 1950s and the rise of rock 'n' roll and how that became the early sixties and the start of the post-Beatles era. Dirty Dancing might be the most famous example, but it's not the only one. Witness The Idolmaker, which looks back at the then-new phenomenon of the teen idol while offering a backstage glance at how the rock world worked in the late 1950s.
The Idolmaker gives us the fictionalized world of Vinnie Vacarri and his protégés, and these actors are the reason why the film succeeds at all. Vinnie is obsessed with stardom and knows exactly how to get it. He's got the musical chops, the know-how, and the street smarts to make the perfect star. The only thing he likes is the looks of a teen idol. Denied his chosen vehicle, he turns to management, and Sharkey's performance captures the pain of that denial. It also captures the obsession to control that grows out of it. Perhaps more importantly, Sharkey also keeps Vinnie from being a totally one-note character, also suggesting his considerable musical intelligence.
Land and Gallagher are the other reason to watch The Idolmaker, as both convincingly transform from more-eager-than-talented beginners to seasoned performers under Vinnie's tutelage. Both are convincing as teen idols, from their shallowness to their ability to command an audience's attention. The film features a number of musical performances by these two, and while the newly created songs have that late-fifties flavor, it's really the enthusiasm of Land and Gallagher that sell these small confections.
The film gets a solid Blu-ray release for a little-heralded catalogue title. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks good. The source print is in fine condition, and the softness that is often present seems to date to the source rather than being a flaw in this transfer. Closeups, though, show a pleasing amount of detail, and color saturation is impressive. Grain is well-represented, but appears a bit too smooth in place. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 mix is even better than the transfer. The musical numbers take center stage, showcasing strong dynamic range and clarity. Dialogue is also clear and well-balanced. The surrounds don't get much of a workout, however, and fans will also appreciate the film's original stereo mix, available as a DTS-HD 2.0 track.
The set's lone extra is a bit of a doozy: director Taylor Hackford (who has since gone on to success with films like Ray) looks back on his first feature with a clear but affectionate eye, detailing the story of the film's production and reception. It's worth a listen to fans of the film.
The Idolmaker isn't great cinema. It takes a tried-and-true formula and gives it an historical spin. The plot is the basic rags-to-riches musical story we've seen in dozens of biopics, and while the music used here is catchy it's got nothing on the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing. Those looking for new insight into the world of sixties rock 'n' roll would do just as well to watch more contemporary fare like Walk the Line.
The Idolmaker is a decent little rock 'n' roll film that has aged well. Fans of the era and musical biopics will find something to appreciate, as will those who've been watching Taylor Hackford's subsequent rise to fame.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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