Whenever I am channel surfing there are three movies I will always stop and watch to their conclusion: Ferris Beuler’s Day Off (John Hughes finest film and the fun standard by which all other teen films are judged), Streets of Fire (Walter Hill’s rock-n-roll fantasy), and The Idolmaker – an underrated gem in which the late lamented Ray Sharkey gives a career defining performance as a man driven to a fault to live vicariously through more handsome men, men he could control just long enough to see them reach his own goal.
I recently caught The Idolmaker again on AMC and was struck anew by the uniformly impeccable acting, direction, cinematography and both writing and song score (by the legendary Jeff Barry). I’ve seen this film so many times, I know all the songs by heart, yet the performances director Taylor Hackford (in his debut) draws from his stars makes each one a show stopper.
Set in the 1950s, when every show business promoter was desperately searching for the next teen idol, Vinnie Vacarri (Ray Sharkey in an award-calbre performance) is a man of limitless talent, but limited looks – he doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor, but he can spot it and exploit it in an instant.
Loosely based on the real-life story of legendary South Philadelphia pop music impresario Robert Marcucci (who was the film’s technical advisor) and his protégés Fabian and Frankie Avalon, The Idolmaker has it all – pathos, humor, and an unflinching look at the free-for-all, pre-Beatles, teen idol gap resulting from Elvis' stint in the Army.
Hitting it big with Tommy Dee (Paul Land), Vacarri and his creation implode as they both fight for complete control. Finding himself back at square one, Vicarri also finds Caesare (Peter Gallagher – doing his own singing), a handsome, clumsy, and naive busboy in whom Vicarri envisions his future. When Caesare becomes even more meglomaniacal than his predecessor Tommy Dee, Vacarri is again at a heartbreaking crossroads.
Refreshingly bereft of dead spots, contrived moments and false notes The Idolmaker is deserving of far more attention that it received when it was originally released.
Due to his heroin addiction, Sharkey's career floundered in years following this star-making role. He ended up flat broke, living with his mother in NYC. He later claimed it was while rewatching himself in the Idolmaker on TV, he was inspired to enter rehab, to get clean and sober, and fight his way back into the game.
Out of rehab, he made a huge comeback when he landed the role of Atlantic City mobster Sonny Steelgrave in the first season of TV's Wiseguy (opposite Ken Wahl). Those episodes remain cult classics for the sparks Sharkey made as he strutted across the screen – his talent is sorely missed.
The Idolmaker is notable not only for what it does, but for what it bravely and commendably avoids doing. Although set in the much sentimentalized 50's, it isn’t a rosy nostalgia piece. Instead Taylor Hackford, directing from Edward Di Lorenzo's smart, cheeky, astutely observed script, offers a tantalizingly tawdry warts'n'all depiction of the blithely amoral behind-the-scenes music business wheeling and dealing: payola, groupies, wheedling, backstabbing and betrayal, sneaky advanced promotion tactics, rock music as strictly a hot marketable commodity to make money through exploitation – in short, all the tasty lowdown dirty behind the scenes action the record-buying public isn't supposed to know about.
Moreover, the songs and on-stage performances are all top-notch productions. The songs themselves are bouncy, moony, incredibly perky and catchy tunes accompanied by vital, mildly lewd, daringly impertinent and provocative dance choreography (by Denny Terrio of Dance Fever infamy).
The acting beyond Sharkey is also excellent: Land and Gallagher are amiably wide-eyed and convincing, while Joe Pantoliano (also in his movie debut) as Vinnie's loyal songwriter best friend, Tovah Feldshuh as a canny, demanding teen magazine editor, Olympia Dukakis as Vinnie's loving mom, Richard Bright (Al Neri in all three "Godfather" films) as Ray's ineffectual loser uncle, and everyone's favorite Brady girl Maureen McCormick as an eminently desirable teen zine writer acquit themselves superbly in supporting roles.
Ultimately, it's still Sharkey's show all the way – forcefully projecting a certain low cunning, oozing scintillating reptilian charisma from every vibrantly oily pore, dressed to the nines in sharp suits, perpetually on the make and furiously talking a dazzling line in the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat pitter-patter of the consummate con-man, Sharkey’s spot-on, positively electrifying characterization rivets you to the screen.