This newly released final edit for commercial streaming services like Amazon and iTunes of the very entertaining feature length rock documentary entitled Dons of Disco may soon be regarded in mainstream critical circles as occupying the summit of its peculiar type. (The film has previously been screened to near unanimous praise from mainly local reviewers in a slightly different version at about twenty film festivals in the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, since its controversial premiere at the Rome Film Festival in October 2018.) Dons of Disco was directed, co-edited, and co-produced by Jonathan Sutak, who was born after the world of Italo-disco had peaked. Sutak's first film, a documentary short entitled The Foreigner, which is set in the similarly crazy, self-absorbed world of intensely competitive video gaming, also achieved award-winning attention on the documentary film festival circuit several years earlier. But Dons of Disco is, or it became somewhere along the unpredictable three year course of its on-site filming in the U.S., Italy, and Germany, much more ambitious.
Believe it or not--that is, before you experience this remarkable second film yourself--Dons of Disco is to the popular rock doc form what Rocco and His Brothers was to Italian neo-realism during the early 1960s: perhaps the pinnacle of its respective genre precisely because it transcends its genre by telling a sprawling human story stuffed with rich humor, rough irony, alternating pathos and elation, succinct and spot-on introspection from conflicted family members (whether bound by blood or financial interests), startling performance highlights centered in Milan (pulverizing disco song routines to pounding dance music instead of tough bloody boxing matches before equally large energized crowds), some sublime moments of tragic consequence and even operatic grandeur, plus elements of an epic tale. Like The Foreigner does too, Dons of Disco grabs ahold of its audience from the outset with something akin to the raw shock of the new and unfamiliar--most first time viewers in the U.S. will never have heard of the 1980s pan-European phenomenon known as Den Harrow, after all. Then, just like the earlier film by this young director, Dons of Disco gradually enlarges its scope by going in unexpected directions and by allowing audience sympathies to subtly shift gears. This almost imperceptible evolution eventually produces not just lots of bedazzled amusement but also a surprisingly powerful emotional attachment to the storyline's two angry antagonists by the time the film reaches its end points within a tightly edited narrative arc.
The two mutual antagonists are Tom Hooker, a gifted American songwriter with an excellent singing voice and Elvis' puffed up black hair, and Stefano Zandri, a blond Italian non-singer with charismatic good looks and killer moves on the dance floor. Now middle-aged men, they once were and defiantly insist on remaining two halves of the late 1980s split-persona superstar of Italo-disco music, Den Harrow, named after the soundalike Italian word for "money." The chief supporting characters, Miki Chieregato and Roberto Turatti, are the effortlessly insightful Italian music producers and twinned Fates who brought them together in Milan in 1985 to create the Den Harrow "project." Stefano Zandri's sensational lip-synced nightclub and TV act set to Tom Hooker's terrific pop voice and highly creative song lyrics (Chieregato contributed the driving music to their co-written songs) succeeded beyond either Stefano's or Tom's wildest dreams--or inchoate demons. The "project" quickly spread and sold millions of records outside Italy into Germany, France, and Spain, then all of Europe, even into the then-Soviet Union! Throughout the film Chieregato and Turatti serve, unintentionally perhaps but inevitably for sure, as their protegees' present-day onscreen Boswells, and their respectively rueful calm-downers as well. Their every word of backward looking or forward looking commentary rings true and trustworthy.
When die hard Den Harrow fans descend on Tom like venomous digital Harpies for having admitted to a casual internet inquiry that he was the voice of Den Harrow, Tom, with Miki Chieregato once again becoming his music producer, goes off on the road in America as the bottom-billed part of a disco revival show for the mostly adult nostalgia market, singing all of Den Harrow's biggest hits which they wrote, while their attractive wives perform backup. Tom does this in order to lay belated claim to the legacy of Den Harrow, as the now publicly revealed "voice" behind the still alluring image. Over in Europe, meanwhile, Stefano, who describes his 1990s life as a "hellish" one beset by the Furies, returns to touring the residual disco-fevered haunts of his glory days, with his own very supportive and quite beautiful wife at his side every step of the hard way back. Stefano does this as much to hold onto his own entitlement to the same legacy, as the mesmerizing "face" and irrepressible stage presence at the front of the image, as to simply make ends meet before he ages out of the disco revival business. What ensues is an intercontinental onstage and internet "war" of performance-driven dueling egos and their respective fans and followers. And this "war" leads to both aging adult performers now having to confront their very different, never buried demons born of an old Faustian bargain in different ways at a different stage of life in a different time. This "war" also is fascinating to behold, wildly funny at times to watch, and all but impossible to stop observing with dropped jaws as it unfolds.
When we last see the contemporary Tom, who had already achieved some degree of alternate fame and obvious commercial success by reinventing himself as the art gallery photographer Thomas Barbey before his Italo-disco demons returned to haunt him in the age of the internet, he's getting ready to shoot a new music video attired in a resplendently tacky outfit in Las Vegas, while musing on the joys of his marriage and his family in lieu of attaining superstardom. Yet he is still unable to let his grievances over the what-might-have-been disco music performance career in the late 1980s tamp down. On the other side of the world, just before this moving Las Vegas sequence is shown, the last we see of the contemporary Stefano is at the reopening of a legendary disco palace appropriately called Galaxia, located in Karlsbad, Germany. This is where Den Harrow's comeback tour is set to peak before an intensely excited big audience comprised of now much older former teenage fans and D.J.s weened on the much younger Den Harrow's irresistable stage presence and dance moves, not to mention the beloved pop music underlying them. This critical performance is prefaced by Stefano's deeply self aware and saddened voiceover articulating his self-avowed "final words" of mature wisdom about the personal tragedy of the unavoidable aging process and the inevitable displacements the process brings with it.
Setting up the even more philosophical Las Vegas sequence, this is an absolutely great cinematic nightclub sequence. It is elegantly shot under indoors lighting effects that cause cones of light to beam down upon Stefano's still handsome face and protectively upheld hand mike, much like graceful rays fall from the morning Spanish sky and glance off the brightened war shield and upright lance of El Cid when he emerges from the suddenly swung-open gates of Valencia at the end of that magnificent 1960s Charlton Heston epic to charge dead ahead from the finite pains of life into the immortality of legend to the majestic sound of a church organ's full throttle blast. Here too this scene is majestically scored, but in a manner that pays implicit homage to the aural interrelationship of Edda Dell'Orso (the ethereal voice) and Ennio Morricone (the orchestral composition and arrangement), two other collaborative Italian musical icons of the 1980s. Then Stefano sublimates his fear of failure like a western hero facing a potentially fatal showdown, he pulls his well-trained but weary tight body together as though he were a badly beaten-up Clint Eastwood squaring off with the resurgent devils in the disco, and, suddenly becalmed by his instinctive stage sense of imminent adulation, he strides through the crowd from its rear, turns about confidently, smiles and blows a winking kiss at one of his perennial female admirers, and launches into a lip-synced prowler's strut to an overheated anthem of Italo-disco at its most brazen called "Bad Boy" while twirling the mike up into the overhead air and catching its descent like a schoolgirl's baton. Whereupon the crowd goes mad with delight and the movie suddenly combines the early1960s neo-realistic humanism of Luchino Visconti with the merciless late1960s romanticism of Sergio Leone until the stunning Galaxia comeback sequence fades away into a silent, slow motion lookback at the young Den Harrow waving farewell to his over-excited 1980s nightclub fanbase.
The entire climactic Galaxia sequence, from introspective introductory voiceover to its melancholic silent fade out, followed immediately by Tom's climactic musings on what really matters in life amid the shiny glitz of Las Vegas, will rock you to the outer rim of your inner soul. While you may find yourself taking "sides" with either one half of the split-persona superstar called Den Harrow or the other half after this combination of dual climaxes is reached, you will surely empathize with both haunted men in the end. And you won't forget them, or the legend of Den Harrow that they cannot escape. This is what a great movie can do to your senses, especially your sense of your own mortality, when movies operate at their very best.