When you hear the phrase “lip-synching scandal,” you can be forgiven for immediately thinking of Milli Vanilli. That’s obviously the highest profile incident, but it’s also not the only public kerfuffle about pop sensations not singing their own songs. Jonathan Sutak’s new documentary, Dons of Disco, rectifies that situation, diving deep into the epic—and I do mean epic, as things get truly nuts along the way—saga of Italian singer Den Harrow.
In 1980s Italy, Italo Disco was king, and the king of Italo Disco was Den Harrow, a name chose because it sounds like de niro, the Italian word for money. To give his popularity some perspective, at least in Italy, as well as other a handful of European markets, Den Harrow topped Michael Jackson on the charts. He was a charismatic performer with model good looks, a body chiseled out of marble, and the hottest damn dance moves. The problem was, as you’ve probably surmised, he didn’t sing his own songs. In reality, he was an amalgam concocted by record producers made up of a face and a voice. Stefano Zandri was the face, Tom Hooker the voice. Hooker had the song-writing and vocal chops while Zandri was electric on stage. Den Harrow was a character, a creation, and Dons of Disco tracks the conflict between Hooker and Zandri as they clash over legacy and who deserves credit.
In reality, this quarrel has the lowest stakes imaginable. The lip-synching has apparently been public knowledge for years, no one is suing anyone, and everyone has had good, comfortable lives for the most part. Hooker, who changed his name, is a successful photographer who drives Porches and lives large. Zandri, who did have a few down years, though nothing on the level of many music business rise-and-fall tales, has also generally been successful, appearing on Italian reality shows and continuing to perform lip-synching Den Harrow songs.
There’s nothing tragic, everyone got paid, there’s little on the line, but Dons of Disco paints a fascinating, compelling portrait of dueling butt-hurt egos, wonton petty bitterness, and constant escalation. At a base level, Hooker simply wants to be acknowledged for his contributions. The film initially frames the narrative as a philosophical debate about image versus reality, examining the question of who is truly responsible for Den Harrow. (Watching the president of the Den Harrow fan club twisting himself into logical knots trying to justify what he’s based his life on is hilarious—just like what you like, dude.)
That’s all well and good, but fortunately for the Dons of Disco filmmakers, the story doesn’t stop there. What it becomes is a endless rise of hostilities. After claiming, rightly, to be the voice Den Harrow—no one, not even Zandri, disputes this fact—rabid fans attack Hooker via social media. You feel for him, for that, but also as someone who’s dream of stardom never materialized and as someone who wants his contributions recognized. But holy crap, does he descend into startling displays of pettiness.
Not only does Hooker embark on an American tour as “the voice of Den Harrow,” as if anyone cares, he, along with one of the original producers, churns out spoof songs and music videos. And not just a few, he released full double CD of songs mocking Den Harrow. While he’s initially congenial, he ultimately comes off as a bored rich guy with a grudge, too much time on his hands, and no real problems who just desperately wants to matter.
While initially framed as the villain, or at least a villain, Zandri winds up the more sympathetic and pensive of the two. With masterful editing and construction, Sutak juxtaposes Hooker’s intensifying efforts against his foe with Zandri’s decline, which ultimately saw him working as a bouncer and personal trainer. Over the course of the film, he transforms from callous, ego-driven star to a humble man ensnared in a trap he never envisioned.
At one point, someone caught up in the middle of the conflict, calls it a “meaningless war,” and no two words better sum up the clash. In the end, Dons of Disco shows two people, aging and looking back, reflecting on what they’ve done and reconciling with what’s really important. The consequences may not be dire, they’re not life and death, but it’s a compelling ride. [Grade: B+]