« Slamdance 2019: Impetus | Main | Slamdance 2019: Crystal Swan »

January 29, 2019

Slamdance 2019: The Dons of Disco


Jonathan Sutak - 2018
Discotheque Studio

While watching the opening minutes of The Dons of Disco, I was remembering a conversation I had with my mother around twenty years ago or so. She had moved to Jerusalem and was talking about some singer who had been the big Eurovision or San Remo winner. I had no idea who she was talking about. But that very brief conversation pointed to the gaps that exist in popular culture between Europe and the U.S.

The Dons of Disco is about the legacy of a very popular singer in the genre called Italo Disco, who was revealed to have mimed his hit records, and the studio musician who cowrote the songs and provided the voice on most of the records. And if you're old enough to think to yourself, "Hey, this reminds me of Milli Vanilli", as it turns out, Rob and Fab were basically the tip of that particular iceberg.

Even though I find the music occasionally catchy, but ultimately forgettable, Jonathan Sutak's documentary is still fascinating in its portrait of the machinations of the music industry thirty years ago. The disco star, Den Harrow (say his name quickly with a silent H, sounds like De Niro), was invented as the face of a group of studio musicians and songwriters, a young man who could sing in perfect English. Spotted on the floor of a disco, blond and pretty Stefano Zandri was enlisted to mime in front of an audience as Den Harrow. The fiction extended to making him an Italian-American from Boston, which meant that publicly Zandri had to limit his speaking to badly accented Italian, and disguise that he did not know more than a few words of English.

The real voice on most of the records, Tom Hooker is shown trying to establish that he was the real voice of Den Harrow, and should be credited as such. Hooker even goes on tour briefly in several U.S. cities as the opening act for Boney M. What makes the rivalry between the voice and the face a bit odd is that both men have had overcome any setbacks to live quite comfortable lives. Hooker changed his last name to Barbey, and is now a very successful photographer based in Las Vegas. Zandri, living in Milan, continued as an actor and television celebrity.

Zandri makes the assertion that the audience responds to the face and not the voice in his claim to be recognized as the real Den Harrow. His example is Robert De Niro and the actor who provides his voice in dubbed films for Italian audiences. While it is mildly amusing to see De Niro's famous "You talkin' to me" scene from Taxi Driver with the voice of Ferruccio Amendola, I don't think this is the best analogy. The illusion of some record companies that an audience will accept that the singer on stage is voiced by someone else is difficult to sustain. The film does not touch on the controversy of singers who lip-synch to their own voices in live performances.

Unknown as he was on this side of the Atlantic, Den Harrow's popularity was such that he topped the likes of Michael Jackson and Falco (hey, even I have a soft-spot for "Der Kommissar"). Several of the other behind the scenes talent in the creation of Den Harrow, fans and discophiles also appear in this film. Perhaps the best point of The Dons of Disco is the reminder that while we may see one face on the record cover, there is often a sizable, and unseen, team providing support.

For a humorous overview of Italo Disco and its influence, there is this article from Pitchfork.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 29, 2019 08:30 AM