“The men don’t know, but the little girls understand”
Teen idols haven’t always been a pure indication of little talent. There was Elvis, The Beatles, Ricky Nelson, The Jackson Five and on the warped and scary side I think Jim Morrison was even featured on a few covers of Tiger Beat Magazine. Sometimes things can get a little amusing as in the case of Fabian Forte’s mangled attempt to try and sing the laughable Turn Me Loose. So when people try and make you think the apocalypse is near because of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, N’ Sync et al just remind them of the carnage of a past that includes Frankie Avalon, Donny Osmond, the Cassidy half brothers, Leif Garrett, Andy Gibb, and Marky Mark and the Fun Bunch. Who thought that New Kids On the Block would turn out to be the most influential group of the ‘90s? Anyone who was paying attention to history, of course. That’s why the Idolmaker is so fascinating. Based on the guy who gave us Fabian and Frankie, it understands the inevitable pattern that repeats itself time and time again. Good looking kid who can possibly but not necessarily sing hits it big, buys his mother a house, eventually feels exploited and left out of the creative process and crashes back to the Earth forever after doomed to be touring dinner theaters in places like Branson, Missouri and Jupiter, Florida. It’s your own fault. I’m sure there are plenty of talented ugly people out there who can sing their asses off, but did you ever support them or put their picture up on your wall?
The Idolmaker begins in 1959 when the Rock and Roll backlash began. Elvis was in the Army, Chuck Berry was in Jail, Jerry Lee Lewis was disgraced, and Little Richard turned embarrassed Preacher. Ray Sharkey is Vinny Vacarri a fast talking Italian hipster who can sing like Dion, and write songs like Carole King, but is 27 and balding. He turns a good looking local kid with a nice voice played by Tommy Land into a teen heartthrob named Tommy Dee. He develops the songs, the moves, the clothing, and pulls a teen magazine in on the deal with great success. This of course isn’t enough for anybody so he tries to replicate his success with a meek busboy he names Caesare (Peter Gallagher). The fact that he can’t sing only makes it sweeter justice when he figures out how to make him big before he even sings a note. Caesare gets so big he even gets to start having sex with Marsha Brady. Sharkey’s megalomania plus insurrection by his dominated stars leads to a crashing cacophonous downfall. Luckily by this time it’s the singer songwriter era so he finally feels confident enough to go on stage himself.
Sharkey is a little like his character. He was never really good looking enough to be a star but he was amazingly volcanic every once in a while like he is here, as Sonny Steelgrave in the early episodes of Wiseguy, and as perhaps a little older version of Vinny as a Black music loving hipster record store owning father in Zebrahead. The scene where he apes Tommy Dee’s dance routine step for step back stage is justifiably famous and stirringly effective.
The Idolmaker’s music by period songwriter Jeff Barry is probably ten times as good as it deserves to be. Bobby Vee, Fabian, even the estimable Pat Boone were never a hundredth as good as these guys especially Caesare who somehow goes from being unable to carry a tune at all to becoming something of a Neil Diamond mega-spectacle. Then again those guys didn’t have their choreography done by Deney Terrio. Today of course the modern King makers like Lou Pereleman and Maurice Starr are more than happy to check their egos at the door and just rake in the big time money. Artists have their ups and downs but kingpins mold and adapt with the times better than Madonna or David Bowie ever did. After all they get to start completely over every couple of years.
The Idolmaker does merit a few interesting questions. What would have become of Elvis Presley if he looked like Paul Williams, and can a songwriter have any artistic self respect whatsoever trying to figure out exactly what it is that will make a 16 year old girl scream? Lucky for us The Beatles had talent, but if the screaming girls had vetoed the whole thing we may never have heard another note.