“Dons of Disco,” Reviewed: A Stranger-Than-Fiction Battle in the World of Italian Pop

Jonathan Sutak’s documentary “Dons of Disco” (streaming on Amazon, iTunes, and other services) presents a major phenomenon hiding in plai...


Jonathan Sutak’s documentary “Dons of Disco” (streaming on Amazon, iTunes, and other services) presents a major phenomenon hiding in plain sight, characters who speak with the epigrammatic and expressive flair of scripted actors, public events that seem too perfect to be true—if I didn’t know better, I’d think that it was a mockumentary of rare accomplishment. My problem with that genre is its knowingness, the winks of explicit comedy that mar its simulations. No such problem exists with “Dons of Disco”—it remains consistently reportorial in tone and wink-free, even while presenting situations of such a hyperbolic wonder that they feel unreal.

Modern documentaries are defined by their relationship to performance—by the self-consciousness of filmmakers who are integrated into the action and of participants who are conspicuously interacting with them. “Dons of Disco” doubles the conspicuousness, because it’s centered on two performers, Stefano Zandri and Tom Hooker, whose sense of performance never leaves them, even when they’re sitting for interviews. What’s more, their spontaneously crafted self-presentation appears contagious—everyone in their circle of personal associations is both floridly and compactly expressive, and so, for that matter, are their fans (at least, the ones seen here).

Zandri and Hooker are like pop music’s matter and antimatter, and it’s among the film’s virtues to leave it doubt which is which. In 1985, the Italian music producers Roberto Turatti and Miki Chieregato, looking to jump onto the disco bandwagon, saw Zandri, then a young man, dancing in a night club and attracting the attention of teen-aged girls. They recruited him to perform—onstage—but, for the wider European market, they needed the songs to be in English and a singer who could sing them. Zandri would perform—impersonating an American, from Boston—with the name of Den Harrow. (The joke of the name is its proximity to the Italian word “denaro,” money). The problem was that he didn’t speak English and wasn’t an accomplished singer. So the producers hired Hooker, a Swiss-American disco singer who’d had a modicum of success in Italy, to write songs with Chieregato and to sing them, for Zandri to lip-synch to onstage, as part of what Chieregato calls the Den Harrow “project” (as if it were a work of conceptual art). The amazing part is that the lip-synching Den Harrow became a star in Italy; Sutak shows a montage of magazine clippings attesting to “his” success, as when the new Den Harrow record took the No. 1 slot—over Michael Jackson. (The documents are so surprising that it’s easy to think of them as fictional graphics made for the movie.)

But Hooker also had a singing career, and continued to pursue it—until Den Harrow’s concert and TV success became so great that his producers put out an album (featuring Hooker’s voice) and, fearing the recognition and exposure, prevented Hooker from doing so under his own name and even pulled his new record from release. The song with which Hooker wanted to make another public appearance, “Don’t Break My Heart,” was given to Den Harrow instead and became his biggest hit—and Hooker quit the act, and quit music. (He began to do photographic collages, and does so under the name of Thomas Barbèy.) Meanwhile, Den Harrow continued—with other singers recording the voice. One d.j., looking at Den Harrow’s subsequent albums, says that, on each subsequent album, the singing voice “became higher and higher.” (Along the way, the movie references the Milli Vanilli scandal, which broke in 1990, as the turning point for the stigmatization of uncredited dubbing.) Eventually, Zandri dropped the act, had financial trouble, went to the United States and back to Italy; Hooker moved to Las Vegas.

Then came the Internet. In 2011, on Facebook, someone asked Hooker whether he had been the voice of Den Harrow; Hooker answered yes, and all hell broke loose. Den Harrow’s fans refused to believe it, and hurled insults at Hooker; Zandri believes that Hooker broke a “gentleman’s agreement” in revealing his role. Hooker discusses Zandri with contempt, recalling that an attorney, drawing up a contract, designated Zandri as a “mime.” Zandri calls Hooker a good musician with no stage presence. By contrast, Zandri is an obviously charismatic presence, who, in his youth, had the beaming expression and candid grin of David Cassidy; in the film, the d.j. Dimitri Giannestras says, of Zandri, “The charisma and the passion he had onstage, it was overwhelming.” Yet the songs themselves have an uncanny power. With their earworm hooks and bouncy beats and purple-hued romanticism, they seem ready-made for recycling through the sound systems of shopping-mall chain stores.

Hooker, for his part, tried a few years ago to reclaim his name as a performer, and went on tour in the U.S. as part of a disco-revival act—but, at one show, his performance was cut off by a mike failure that, he thinks, was an act of sabotage. (I’m reminded of the anecdote about Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson that Malcolm X tells in “One Night in Miami.”) Then, when the d.j. at one of Hooker’s shows put the performance up on YouTube, it was quickly taken down for copyright violation—Hooker and Chieregato (who was still working with him) may have written the songs but have no rights to them. Then, Hooker, looking to reclaim the act itself, started performing as a parody act, Tam Harrow (another Italian pun, for “tamarro,” which, Hooker says, means “hillbilly”).

“Dons of Disco” opens a vertiginous rabbit hole of philosophical conundrums of performance and authorship, and, where Hooker’s frustrations seem to dominate much of the discussion, it’s Zandri who lends the film its twist of cinema, when he explains why the act’s historical pecking order is entirely fair. “You don’t fall in love with a voice but with a face,” he says. “It’s like saying that if Robert De Niro wasn’t dubbed by Ferruccio Amendola in Italy, De Niro wouldn’t have been De Niro. No, De Niro would have been De Niro with his voice, or yours, because he is De Niro and I am Den Harrow.” To illustrate the point, Sutak plugs onto the screen a brief clip from “Taxi Driver,” with De Niro dubbed into Italian for the “You talkin’ to me?” scene.

In a way, “Dons of Disco” is a reverse-pisser; rather than showing the enormous consequences resulting from disproportionately small actions, it shows the enormous raging conflict that emerges from a phenomenon that’s somewhere between curious and trivial; it’s something like “Singin’ in the Rain” meeting the Hatfields and the McCoys. The enmity between Hooker and Zandri remains unresolved. Tom speaks of Zandri’s “megalomania,” while Zandri says that Hooker “thinks he’s God on earth.” (Alice Gregory’s 2019 piece in GQ about the making of “Dons of Disco” details the disputes that continued even after the film was finished.) The division persists among Den Harrow’s fans as well; though one, who’s interviewed, realizes now that he’s a fan of whomever was doing the singing on the albums, Zandri’s presence is still a draw. He returns to perform as the second coming of Den Harrow, in his own voice, at the second coming of a disco in Karlsbad, Germany, where the proprietor is sure that the mere rumor of Den Harrow performing will fill the house.

Sutak tells this amazing story with an admirable directness and simplicity; he avoids the sense of documentary convention and seems to be following the urgency of his own sense of wonder. He also plays with a moving simplicity on the passage of time, by showing archival footage and images of the film’s current-day participants in their nineteen-eighties activities and appearances. In bringing back the eighties, and eighties people, the film suggests the fearsome words of Ramuz in the libretto for Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat”: “one cannot be both who one is and who one was.” It falls once more to Zandri to give this pain another poignant cinematic reference. “To perform in Germany for the once sixteen-year-old audience and to find them old as their now old singer, I find it depressing,” he says. “It reminds me of that movie with Mickey Rourke, ‘The Wrestler,’ when they all meet for a reunion of the characters they used to be. However, you cannot forget we are no longer who we used to be.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: “Dons of Disco,” Reviewed: A Stranger-Than-Fiction Battle in the World of Italian Pop
“Dons of Disco,” Reviewed: A Stranger-Than-Fiction Battle in the World of Italian Pop
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