So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star: The Idolmaker, Breaking Glass, That’ll Be The Day, Stardust


So, you want to be a rock and roll star?  Then listen now to what I say: just get an electric guitar and take some time and learn how to play.  And when your hair’s combed right and your pants fit tight, it’s gonna be all right.

If you need any more help, try watching these four films:

Idolmaker

The Idolmaker (1980, directed by Taylor Hackford)

The Idolmaker is a movie that asks the question, “What does it take to be a star?  Who is more interesting, the Svengalis or the Trilbys?”  The year is 1959 and Vinny Vacari (Ray Sharkey, who won a Golden Globe for his performance but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing the movie) is a local kid from New Jersey who dreams of being a star.  He has got the talent.  He has got the ambition and he has got the media savvy.  He also has a receding hairline and a face like a porcupine.

Realizing that someone who looks like him is never going to make hundreds of teenage girls all scream at once, Vinny instead becomes a starmaker.  With the help of his girlfriend, teen mag editor Brenda (Tovah Feldshuh) and a little payola, he turns saxophone player Tomaso DeLorussa into teen idol Tommy Dee.  When Tommy Dee becomes a star and leaves his mentor, Vinny takes a shy waiter named Guido (Peter Gallagher) and turns him into a Neil Diamond-style crooner named Cesare.  Destined to always be  abandoned by the stars that he creates, Vinny continually ends up back in the same Jersey dive, performing his own songs with piano accompaniment.

The Idolmaker is a nostalgic look at rock and roll in the years between Elvis’s induction into the Army and the British invasion.  The Idolmaker has some slow spots but Ray Sharkey is great in the role of Vinny and the film’s look at what goes on behind the scenes of stardom is always interesting.  In the movie’s best scene, Tommy performs in front of an audience of screaming teenagers while Vinny mimics his exact moments backstage.

Vinny was based on real-life rock promoter and manager, Bob Marcucci.  Marcucci was responsible for launching the careers of both Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte.  Marcucci served as an executive producer on The Idolmaker, which probably explains why this is the rare rock film in which the manager is more sympathetic than the musicians.

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Breaking Glass (1980, directed by Brian Gibson)

At the same time that The Idolmaker was providing American audiences with a look at life behind-the-scenes of music stardom, Breaking Glass was doing the same thing for British audiences.

In Breaking Glass, the idolmaker is Danny (Phil Daniels, who also starred in Quadrophenia) and his star is an angry New Wave singer named Kate (Hazel O’Connor).  Danny first spots Kate while she is putting up flyers promoting herself and her band and talks her into allowing him to mange her.  At first, Kate refuses to compromise either her beliefs or her lyrics but that is before she starts to get famous.  The bigger a star she becomes, the more distant she becomes from Danny and her old life and the less control she has over what her music says.  While her new fans scare her by all trying to dress and look like her, Kate’s old fans accuse her of selling out.

As a performer, Hazel O’Connor can be an acquired taste and how you feel about Breaking Glass will depend on how much tolerance you have for her and her music.  (She wrote and composed all of the songs here.)  Breaking Glass does provide an interesting look at post-punk London and Jonathan Pryce gives a good performance as a sax player with a heroin addiction.

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That’ll Be The Day (1973, directed by Claude Whatham)

Real-life teen idol David Essex plays Jim MacClaine, a teenager in 1958 who blows off his university exams and runs away to the Isle of Wright.  He goes from renting deckchairs at a resort to being a barman to working as a carny.  He lives in squalor, has lots of sex, and constantly listens to rock and roll.  Eventually, when he has no other choice, he does return home and works in his mother’s shop.  He gets married and has a son but still finds himself tempted to abandon his family (just as his father previously abandoned him) and pursue his dreams of stardom.

David Essex and Ringo Starr

Based loosely on the early life of John Lennon, the tough and gritty That’ll Be The Day is more of a British kitchen sink character study than a traditional rock and roll film but rock fans will still find the film interesting because of its great soundtrack of late 50s rock and roll and a cast that is full of musical luminaries who actually lived through and survived the era.  Billy Fury and the Who’s Keith Moon both appear in small roles.  Mike, Jim’s mentor and best friend, is played by Ringo Starr who, of all the Beatles, was always the best actor.

That’ll Be The Day ends on a downbeat note but it does leave the story open for a sequel.

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Stardust (1974, directed by Michael Apted)

Stardust continues the story of Jim MacClaine.  Jim hires his old friend Mike (Adam Faith, replacing Ringo Starr) to manage a band that he is in, The Straycats (which includes Keith Moon, playing a far more prominent role here than in That’ll Be the Day).  With the help of Mike’s business savvy, The Stray Cats find early success and are signed to a record deal by eccentric Texas millionaire, Porter Lee Austin (Larry Hagman, playing an early version of J.R. Ewing).

When he becomes the breakout star of the group, Jim starts to overindulge in drugs, groupies, and everything that goes with being a superstar.  Having alienated both Mike and the rest of the group, Jim ends up as a recluse living in a Spanish castle.  Even worse, he gives into his own ego and writes a rock opera, Dea Sancta, which is reminiscent of the absolute worst of progressive rock.  Watching Jim perform Dea Sancta, you understand why, just a few years later, Johnny Rotten would be wearing a homemade “Pink Floyd Sucks” t-shirt.

Stardust works best as a sad-eyed look back at the lost promise of the 1960s and its music.  Watch the movie and then ask yourself, “So, do you really want to be a rock and roll star?”

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Shattered Politics #63: Primary Colors (dir by Mike Nichols)


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Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state.  After spending his entire life in politics, Jack is finally ready to run for President.  Even more ready is his equally ambitious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).  Jack proves himself to be a strong candidate, a good speaker who understands the voters and who has the ability to project empathy for almost anyone’s situation. He’s managed to recruit a talented and dedicated campaign staff, including the flamboyant Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and journalist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester).  Henry is the son of a civil rights leader and, as soon as they meet, Jack talks about the first time that he ever heard Henry’s father speak.  Within minutes of first meeting him, Henry believes in Jack.

The problem, however, is that there are constant hints that Jack may not be worthy of his admiration.  There’s the fact that he’s a compulsive womanizer who is given to displays of temper and immaturity.  When one of Jack’s old friends reveals that Jack may have impregnated his daughter, Jack and Susan respond with a pragmatic ruthlessness that takes Henry by surprise.

When one of Jack’s mistresses threatens to go public, Henry is partnered up with Libby (Kathy Bates) and sent to dig up dirt on her and her sponsors.  When the former governor of Florida, Freddie Picker (Larry Hagman), emerges as a threat to derail Jack’s quest for the nomination, Henry and Libby are again assigned to research Picker’s background.  Libby is perhaps the film’s most interesting character.  Recovering from a mental breakdown, Libby has no trouble threatening to shoot one political opponent but she’s still vulnerable and idealistic enough that it truly hurts her when Jack and Susan repeatedly fail to live up to her ideals.  As an out lesbian, Libby is perhaps the only character who has no trouble revealing her true self and, because of her honesty, she is the one who suffers the most.

First released in 1998 and based on a novel by Joe Klein, Primary Colors is an entertaining and ultimately rather bittersweet dramedy about the American way of politics.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson may be playing Jack and Susan Stanton but it’s obvious from the start that they’re meant to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to Travolta’s attempt to sound Southern, this is ultimately one of his best performances.  As played by Travolta, Jack Stanton is charming, compassionate, self-centered, and ultimately, incredibly frustrating.  One reason why Primary Colors works is because we, as an audience, come to believe in Jack just as much as Henry does and then we come to be just as disillusioned as Libby.  Emma Thompson’s performance is a little less obviously based on Hillary.  Unlike Travolta, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Hillary’s voice or mannerisms.  But she perfectly captures the steely determination.

Primary Colors captures both the thrill of believing and the inevitability of disillusionment.  It’s definitely a film that I will rewatch in the days leading up to 2016.

Shattered Politics #23: Fail-Safe (dir by Sidney Lumet)


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After watching Dr. Strangelove, you may find yourself asking what that film would have been like if it had treated its doomsday scenario seriously.  Well, you can find out by watching yet another film from 1964, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe.

What’s Fail-Safe about?  Well, basically, it tells the exact same story as Dr. Strangelove, except without the humor.  Once again, an American bomber is accidentally ordered to launch a nuclear attack against Russia.  Again, the President (played, somewhat inevitably, by Henry Fonda) has to have an awkward conversation with the leader of Russia.  Again, a sinister defense advisor (this time played by Walter Matthau) argues that the world can survive a nuclear war.

Admittedly, there is no equivalent to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson in Fail-Safe.  However, there is a General Black (Dan O’Herilihy) who has a recurring nightmare about watching a bullfight while the sky around him glows with radiation.

Fail-Safe has the same plot as Dr. Strangelove but none of the humor.  In fact, Fail-Safe has absolutely no humor at all.  It’s one of the most somber films that I’ve ever seen.  It has a good opening with General Black’s nightmare and an effective ending that makes excellent use of freeze frames but the middle of the film is basically just a collection of endless debates.

And I’m sure that approach made sense at the time because, after all, Fail-Safe was dealing with a serious theme, it was directed by a serious filmmaker, and it featured a bunch of serious actors.  And maybe if I had never seen Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe would not seem like such a slow and boring movie.  But I have seen Dr. Strangelove and, as a result, it’s impossible to watch Fail-Safe without wanting to hear Henry Fonda say, “You can’t fight here!  This is the war room!”

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd