'Still alive' Zappacosta's story rocks ReelHeART film fest

By Jim Slotek

As Canadian showbiz veterans do, Alfie Zappacosta encountered a long-time colleague recently. “I ran into Burton Cummings,” the ‘80s rocker recalls. “And he said, ‘I thought you were dead!’”

It was a double-edged jape. Zappacosta – the subject of the documentary Long Road Home at the ReelHeART International Film & Screenplay Festival - indeed nearly died in 2012, of acute pancreatitis (at the exact same time that his wife Sonny became fatally ill herself with liver disease).

Alfie Zappacosta

Alfie Zappacosta

But the remark also speaks to the degree to which Zappacosta left his old life and image behind after moving to Edmonton in the ‘90s.

Zappacosta had been both blessed and cursed by his career timing. In the ‘80s, there was good money to be made recording, but sales were fueled by these new things called “music videos,” which could be very silly indeed.

Check YouTube for the video for one of his biggest solo hits, We Should Be Lovers, and you’ll find big-haired, tight-pants Alfie wrestling with two models in a ring covered in Jello.

“It was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Zappacosta says over the phone from Edmonton. “It was Doug Bennett from Doug and the Slugs who came up with the idea. I don’t know why Jello. I joke about it onstage when I’m performing live.

“The Jello was freezing cold. You start thinking about George Costanza and shrinkage,” he says, in a Seinfeld reference.

“But Mr. Cutesy Guy was what the label (EMI) had in mind. Sell the sex and sell the hair and we’ll sell a lot of records.”

But Zappacosta rode out the role given to him after he went solo from his first band Surrender.

Leaving the '80s behind

Leaving the '80s behind

He received a Juno for Most Promising Male Vocalist (presented to him in Long Road Home by Carole Pope and Kim Mitchell in a piece of footage that screams “’80s!”). He was included in the lineup of Tears Are Not Enough, the Bryan Adams/David Foster-driven Canadian follow-up to the Ethiopian famine-relief videos Do They Know It's Christmas? and We Are The World. He appeared as himself on shows like CBC’s Danger Bay. He indulged in the drugs and alcohol that were pretty much everywhere in his line of work.

And he made a lot of money when his song Overload was included in Dirty Dancing, on film and on the soundtrack album.

He was at some point, he admits, famous for being famous. With the result that he suddenly found himself, with no prior experience, cast in the leads of stage shows like Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar on the strength of his name.

It was while performing the latter in Edmonton that he decided to find a quieter life for the sake of his wife and kids, and he stayed. He wrote music with a jazzier vibe and dressed his age onstage. “I needed to get off the bus and recap this whole thing. The alternative would have been if I’d followed suit and gone the Loverboy/Honeymoon Suite route, stuck to writing songs that were very specific of what was expected of me, and being on the road constantly.

“I saw Loverboy in Halifax and talked to (keyboardist) Dougie Johnson, and it was, ‘Well, Alfie, they play the same 12 frickin’ songs.’ Bruce Allen said, ‘You guys are not writing anymore, you’re just punching the clock, going on stage and going home.’”

Zappacosta’s new stage persona is there for all to see in Long Road Home, a doc produced by film students at Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. The film is wrapped around two nights of concerts at the city’s Festival Place. There are horns, back-up singers, stylized covers of his hits, and the kind of musicianship he never had a chance to indulge in his career.

“It’s really not jazz,” he says, “unless people think doing a minor 9th or flat five chord is jazz. I’m a friggin artist. They’re not jazz standards. They’re a constant searching for something that’s musical. It’s jazzier I suppose in the sense that there’s a little more depth to it.”

As for the students (whose film has been winning indie awards), and their professor Michael Jorgenson, Zappacosta says, “they brought excitement and a bunch of things to it. All I had to do was tell them the truth and they did a great job. But out of it there’s a DVD, Live at Festival Place, all sorts of stuff I can use for promotional purposes on social media.

“And people can see I haven’t stopped. I make a living by putting bums in seats.”

I had to ask about some ‘80s highlights, notably Tears Are Not Enough. “Most of that stuff is a blur I can barely remember,” he says. “ But Tears Are Not Enough was a trip. I was having a great talk with Joni Mitchell. I had to ask Joni, in the (inside cover) of For The Roses, she’s on the rocks and naked. I asked Joni, ‘Is that really you, naked on the rocks?

“And she said yes, and that she was trying to do was a Venus de Milo kind of thing.

“And we were having a good time, and Bryan Adams came by and said, ‘C’mon Joni, it’s your time,’ and they took her away.

She was very nice. I was going to tell her, ‘You have a beautiful ass,’ but I didn’t get a chance.”

Though he’s regularly been in Toronto playing Hugh’s Room, Zappacosta will miss the movie’s July 8 opening here, because he has a paying gig on Vancouver Island. “There’s actually a lot of work in this country,” he says. “If I get four or five gigs a month, I’m happy.

“That was the especially unfortunate thing about my wife dying (June 24 was the fifth anniversary of her death), that we’d finally reached a place where everything was calm and good. You don’t have to have a lot of money to be happy.”
Long Road Home. Directed by Stephanie Volk. Debuting Saturday at the Carlton Cinema as part of the ReelHeART International Film & Screenplay Festival.

The REELHEART INTERNATIONAL FILM & SCREENPLAY FESTIVAL (reelheart.com) opens July 3 at the Carlton Cinema with the Vietnamese feature drama Father And Son and the Chinese shorts Choice In Quantum and Death In A Day.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.