If you lived through the late ‘80s, you probably remember Milli Vanilli and the scandal that arose when the Grammy-winning duo revealed that they did not actually sing on their recordings. The admission destroyed their careers, and they returned their award for Best New Artist, only to become the laughing stock of the music industry and an embarrassing footnote in the annals of pop music. The practice, however, was much more widespread in Europe, as revealed in Pietro Anton’s excellent 2018 examination of the ‘80s European dance scene, Italo Disco Legacy. With Dons of Disco, director Jonathan Sutak beautifully tells the story of one of Europe’s most popular ‘80s recording artists, Den Harrow, and the embittered turmoil arising from his own lip-synching revelation.
“…they would write the songs, Hooker would sing and Stefano Zandri…would be the face.”
In the mid-‘80s, American ex-pat Tom Hooker had a successful career as an Italo disco songwriter and performer when producer Miki Chieregato approached him to collaborate on a new project. Together, they would write the songs, Hooker would sing and Stefano Zandri, a kid they saw in the local discotheque who was popular with the girls, would be the face. This character, Den Harrow, dominated the European pop charts for the rest of the decade, even beating Michael Jackson at one point. Eventually, Italo disco faded in popularity, and everyone went on with their lives. Prompted by fans decades later, Tom Hooker admitted that he indeed sang the legendary Den Harrow hits. Zandri was not amused, and they became bitter enemies. Hooker reunited with Chieregato and rekindled their music careers, while Zandri made threats and continued performing Den Harrow songs. Eventually, this rivalry rose to irreconcilable levels, with fans choosing sides in the battle.
What Sutak has done so brilliantly is perfectly capture the essence of a bad band breakup. Yes, Den Harrow was a manufactured pop icon, but his massive success came from the combined talents of everyone involved. Hooker and Chieregato supplied the songs, while Zandri played the personality who embodied the music. Hooker lost his identity to Zandri, and Zandri lost his identity to producers who claimed he was a Bostonite named Manuel Stefano Carry despite his difficulty speaking English. To the public, though, Den Harrow was a multitalented superstar who could get whatever he wanted based on his looks, dance moves and talent.
“…comes off as angry, resentful and full of himself…”
30 years later, Hooker comes across as an extremely well-adjusted, down-to-earth guy who just wants to be recognized for his contribution to the project. Chieregato remains loyal to him, seeking the same recognition for what they created together. Zandi, on the other hand, comes off as angry, resentful and full of himself, but as the layers peel away, his character arcs and reveals a vulnerability that he probably spends his life trying to ignore. It makes for some gripping story-telling, especially in the wake of all the bitterness they’ve accumulated over the years.
Take The Beatles, for example. John and Paul were the primary songwriters and the core of the group, but it would not have been the same band without George and Ringo. Just listen to their solo albums. The same could be said for Den Harrow, with the evidence resting in the wane of record sales after Hooker left as songwriter. The question becomes then, can the parts of Den Harrow ever reconcile enough to give fans the true reunion they desire? We’ll see.
Dons of Disco (2019) Directed by Jonathan Sutak. Starring Tom Hooker (aka Thomas Barbey), Miki Chieregato, Stefano Zandri, Roberto Turatti. Dons of Disco screened at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.
9 out of 10 stars