Monday, January 28, 2019

Slamdance ’19: Dons of Disco

Milli Vanilli got off easy. Sure, they have been mocked and humiliated, but at least they were not pulled into a blood feud with their “ghost-singers.” “Blood feud” might be a slight exaggeration in the case of Tom Hooker and Stefano Zandri, but only slightly so. The face of Den Harrow, the supposedly American Italo-Disco star took umbrage when the voice started taking credit for his vocals. Jonathan Sutak chronicles a very strange and very Italian show business story in Dons of Disco (trailer here), which screens during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Both Hooker and Zandri would probably agree the 1970s were quite a time in Italy. Disco was most definitely the thing and super-producers Miki Chieregato and Roberto Turatti were quite adept at manufacturing hits, but Den Harrow was their greatest invention. According to his legend, Harrow hailed from Chicago, but he was really Zandri, an Italian model and party-boy, who lip-synched the vocals of Hooker, a genuine American. He had a legit Italian chart-topper, but his career suffered when his vocals for Harrow became too value to dilute with releases under his own name.

Hooker had more-or-less accepted his ghost status, successfully forging a new career, until he was outed on social media. He decided to own up and reclaim his voice, which did not sit well with Zandri. Hooker, now known as Thomas Barbey even launched a comeback attempt with the help of Chieregato, whereas as Turatti essentially sided with Zandri.

The Den Harrow story is “stranger than fiction” and Sutak does it justice. However, whether it was his intention or not, Hooker has the clear advantage throughout the doc. In the 70s Zandri might have been the better looking one, but in the 2010s, Hooker/Barbey is much more charismatic on-screen. He has a sense of humor, whereas Zandri acts like a poor man’s Franco Nero. Plus, Hooker can actually sing.

There are a number of genuine surprises in store for viewers at various points during Dons. It will also be wildly nostalgic for the disco generation. Sutak has a solid handle on Harrow and his legion of fans. If viewers are not careful, they could even find themselves infected by Harrow earworms, like the ultra-of-its-era “Don’t Break My Heart.”

The ultimate irony of Dons is just how much superior the current circumstances of Hooker/Barbey are compared to those of Zandri. Apparently, the Face had tax problems—that’ll do it every time. It also explains the vehemence of Zandri’s response—he needs to be Harrow more than Hooker. Regardless, their story is certifiably nutty, but there is a general love of music shared by Sutak, his subjects, and his talking heads that is quite appealing. Recommended for nostalgic fans of disco music and related forms of cheesy music, Dons of Disco screens again on Thursday (1/31), as part of this year’s Slamdance.