Friday, September 23, 2016

Bugsy Malone

If another gangster musical with an all-kid cast exists in the stratosphere, I'm certainly unaware of it.  A stark picture that looks and feels a lot like an old Damon Runyon story or gangster noir, but with children.  Does this sound like a good, or at least workable, idea for a movie? Writer/director Alan Parker, in his film debut, thought so. 1976's BUGSY MALONE, if nothing else, is unlike any other flick I've seen.  It's a dandy novelty piece, rarely discussed anymore.  An unusual, possibly daring experiment that is proving hard to review.

Why? BUGSY MALONE inspires a certain brand of confusion as it is viewed.  Maybe discomfort as well. It could depend of the age of the viewer.   I first saw this movie when I was in my early teens, finding it fascinating and fun.  The film puts the kids through the old timey paces of the roles once played by the likes of actors like John Garfield.  The story takes place during Prohibition, in and out of speakeasies, in dingy backstage dressing rooms.  Jodie Foster plays torch singer Tallulah, girlfriend of gin joint owner Fat Sam (John Cassisi, absolutely perfect in this role) and Scott Baio (future Happy Days player and Trump supporter) plays the title character, a two bit boxing promoter who impresses Fat Sam with his courage and moxie and is later hired as his driver.  The entire cast is well selected.

The script references the sort of antics displayed by criminals like Al Capone, Bugs Moran, et. al.  Plenty of guns come out but instead of bullets, whipped cream is fired. "Splurge guns" they call 'em.  They get plenty of use throughout BUGSY MALONE, with several slow motion highlights.  It's all very slapstick, but when someone gets splurged, they still go to that big dance hall in the sky, so if you think on that, it's sorta disturbing (unless you take the climax of the movie literally).  Watching thirteen year old Foster vamp it up and sing the highly suggestive tune "My Name is Tallulah" may also ruffle a few twenty-first century feathers.

But to me, the incongruity of it all is part of what makes BUGSY MALONE worth seeing, assure a spot in cinema history.  I'm not entirely down with the choice to dub the kids' singing with adult voices (a bit creepy at times), but the sum is quite entertaining and certainly, different.  Fans of Parker will also note strong similarities between the choreography and editing of the soup kitchen number here and the meat grinder scene ("Another Brick in the Wall, Part II") in his later PINK FLOYD, THE WALL.  The director would continue his somewhat bleak perspective on movie musicals with EVITA in 1996.

Just about all of the songs (composed by Paul Williams) in BUGSY MALONE are spirited yet tinged with sadness, especially "Tomorrow" sung by a young black boy as he pushes a broom and laments not getting to chance to audition.  Most sound very '70s, too, adding to what is a one-of-a-kind experience.

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