Idolmaker, The (1980): Taylor Hackford’s Feature Debut

In the current movie scene, Hackford is an anomaly, an unabashedly old-fashioned director with strong and grounded instincts for unpretentious commercial entertainment.

Though he’s only a few years younger than Scorsese, and a few years older than Spielberg, Hackford seems to belong to another era–to classic Hollywood cinema and the studio’s golden age era. I have no doubt that Hackford would have benefited immensely had he been a long-term contract director at MGM, or another studio.

Like Spielberg and Lucas, Hackford attended USC, but he didn’t study film, instead getting a degree in international relations. His interest in politics continued when he served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. Politics, in both the specific and broader sense of the term, also features in the text and subtext of several of Hackford’s films, like “White Nights” and “Proof of Life.”

Hackford began his career with a TV station, and later started his own production company, New Visions.

In the 1980s, Hackford veered toward a producer’s role, merging his company with New Century Entertainment to form New Century/New Visions. However, in 1990, after a flurry of production activity, he dissolved his business and devoted himself entirely to directing.

Talent and technical skills were never an issue with Hackford, who won an Oscar for his live-action short, “Teenage Father,” in 1978. Indeed, he proved himself a capable director with his very first feature, “The Idolmaker,” in 1980.  Many of Hackford’s films are literally set in the past: “The Idolemaker” was set in 1959, and “La Bamba” also belongs to a bygone era.

Music and films about musicians and performers are obviously close to Hackford’s heart. The central character of Hackford’s feature debut, “The Idolmaker,” was a young songwriter from the Bronx, Vinney (Ray Sharkey), searching for a singer with “the right look” for the bobby-soxers.

Realizing that looks are more important than voice, Vinney uses his brashness and energy, and takes a dissolute, baby-faced saxophone player from a juke joint, turning him into a rock idol. Edward Di Lorenzo’s script was inspired by the life of the rock impresario Bob Marucci.

Critics were often harsh on Hackford’s neglect of narrative logic, of favoring well-executed entertainment over stronger stories and sharp characterization. Hence, reviewing “The Idolmaker,” Pauline Kael wrote that the film was of no special importance and had a rickety script, but she also found it to be “likable, with verve and snap.”