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Chicago International Film Festival: ‘The Idolmaker,’ ‘White Nights’ and Taylor Hackford

the idolmaker

I’m starting off my Chicago Film Festival reviews with two movies from director Taylor Hackford that premiered at the festival during the ’80s. The Idolmaker (1980) and White Nights (1985) were both re-screened as part of CIFF’s 50th Anniversary festivities and I had the opportunity to do a roundtable interview with Mr. Hackford. He was being shuttled off to another engagement so I didn’t get to ask him too many questions, but some of what he said has informed my reviews.

Both White Nights and The Idolmaker are music movies, but only the former seems to be aware of this. Hackford got his start in the entertainment industry covering concerts for a public TV station in LA, which has led to a long career directing a variety of musician biopics and movies with a lot of music in them. The Idolmaker was his first fictional, music movie and although well-regarded at the time of release, Hackford’s film based on the life of manager and promoter Bob Maracucci has not stood the test of time.

The Idolmaker chronicles working class Vincent “Vinnie” Vacari’s (Ray Sharkey) rise to the top of the music industry representing a local Brookyln singer Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land). Tommie’s almost unimpeded rise to the top drains the film’s first half of much conflict and the introduction of a new singer named Guido (Peter Gallagher) in the second half takes the plot on a left turn that leaves the viewer feeling cheated. All three men are quite unlikable with the alarming near-rape of a teenaged girl at the beginning, stopping cold any sympathy I had for those involved. Furthermore, the primarily Italian New Yorker main characters are offensive personifications of almost every Italian stereotype from the overbearing patriarch to a lot of “youse guys”.

All things being equal, White Nights is not great either, but at least it is a somewhat unprecedented film about world-class ballet dancer Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) getting stuck in the Soviet Union with an American tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines). The government traps Rodchenko in the USSR because they want him to perform at the Kirov, pushing through a series of rather sinister Russian portrayals in line with American opinion during the Cold War.

white nights

Despite the film’s 136 minutes, plans don’t get fully explained and time is spent on unimportant information that doesn’t contribute to the main story. The plot is left hazy in large part because Rodchenko and Greenwood’s dance sequences cause a complete halt in plot development so the audience can marvel at their footwork. What Hackford failed to match in The Idolmaker was a clear cinematographic focus on the film’s biggest draw – the dancing setpieces. These scenes combine two rather different dancing styles, full-bodied ballet and fervid tap, with stunning choreography by famed dancer Twyla Tharp.

White Nights at least if lacking in plot delivers on the dancing front, but The Idolmaker flounders in its singing scenes. The rambling plot is more noticeable because less time is spent on musical numbers and worse yet the musical numbers are mostly terrible. In the beginning, Vinnie brings Tommie in for a one on one recording session, which is supposed to be impressive but the result is at best average. It’s as if the scene in the beginning of Space Jam where young Michael Jordan does the awesome slam dunk was just MJ doing a layup that almost misses the hoop.

Both films do have strong actors behind them, though White Nights wins out here as well. That film introduced Isabella Rosselini to American audiences as the wide-eyed wife of Raymond Greenwood and Helen Mirren delivers a strong performance as Galina Ivanova, a former dancer trapped in Russia, not to mention Gregory Hines as a disillusioned Vietnam defector. The Idolmaker is far more melodramatic overall which makes the acting harder to appreciate, but Ray Sharkey won a Golden Globe for his role as Vinnie.

While most of my review is critical of both films, I am sure during the period in which these films premiered they were par for the course. In fact, Lionel Richie won the Academy Award for his song “Say You, Say Me” in White Nights that was a hit in 1985, but has thankfully faded from public memory. Our standards of misogyny and even plot development have built upon the generation before us, and in Hackford’s case the generation before that, so it might be unfair to criticize these films from a current perspective. Still in comparison to other contemporary films, they both offer shaky plots with little of technical distinction, resulting in a tough sell on two long movies for ten minutes total of singing and dancing sequences.