New York in 1959 and Vinnie Vacarri (Ray Sharkey) has realised that as a singer-songwriter, he is not pop idol material. Therefore he has decided to go for another option, and find someone who is so he can have them perform his work; with a little luck and the right contacts, he may well have a success on his hands. At the moment, however, he is stuck working as a waiter in his brother's restaurant and going nowhere fast, but then he meets a boy who he thinks he can whip into shape as a potential star: Tommy Dee (Paul Land). Yet the path to success is fraught with trouble, and Vinnie only has his wits to guide him through the showbiz minefield...
The Idolmaker was an uncredited version of the life story of Bob Marcucci, and even though as "advisor" he has a tiny cameo in it, he still sued the filmmakers. Perhaps they would have been better off sticking closely to the facts and naming names, as Marcucci was the man who discovered Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte, who must have had some interesting tales to tell about their rise to fame, but considering this prefers to emphasise the grit as well as the glitz, that could have resulted in more legal action. As it was, here was a pop movie which took the svengali as the main player, and his guiding hand is what the script concentrated upon.
Which was probably just as well, as the music was pretty hopeless as far as recreating the era of late fifties to early sixties went. Shakin' Stevens sounded more authentic than the tunes you hear in this, with umistakably 1980 production and songwriting ruining the ambience that was so carefully crafted elsewhere: the movie opens with an impressive tracking shot along a whole street that has been designed to be redolent of the proper time, but it all goes to pieces the moment anyone starts to croon. The grand musical finale in particular sounds like a reject from the contemporary remake of The Jazz Singer with Peter Gallagher doing his best Neil Diamond.
Another issue that you may have with The Idolmaker is that despite its focus on the power behind the scenes, you never feel as if you have got under the skin of what it was actually like to be getting the breaks in the pop scene of its day. Sharkey, a troubled performer whose self-destructive streak prevented him from being a bigger star, shows that he had the acting chops to carry a movie, but his character as written is too one note and although he puts in an admirable amount of effort, Vinnie holds no surprises. Tommy Dee isn't all that fascinating either, as the film relies on his sleazy side to add depth to his personality, but things pick up as far as the drama goes when Peter Gallagher's Caesare enters the scene.
Caesare isn't his own idea of a pop heartthrob when Vinnie meets him as he waits tables, but the entrepreneur sees something in the boy, perhaps his looks, that means the teenager is his next project now that Tommy seems to be leaving him in the dust. The first gig goes very badly, with Caesare's voice cracking so much his stage fright leads him to rush off the stage, but Vinnie has more faith in his talents than he does, and soon due to a canny advertising campaign the girls of New York are desperate to see what he's made of, which prompts the best sequence as the concert arranged to show him off descends into a near riot because the security isn't good enough. But it does eventually go ahead and the protégé hits the heights Vinnie always wanted for him - well, you can guess what happens next. The Idolmaker was a fair try at a different side of the usual music biopic, but too often felt a little flat in spite of Sharkey. Music by Jeff Barry.