Someone once said that if it was raining brains, Roxy Robinson wouldn’t even get wet. Roxy had spent his whole life making two and two into five but he could smell trouble like other people could smell gas. But believe youse me, he should have never taken that blind alley by the side of Parito’s Bakery.– voiceover, Bugsy Malone
So says the voiceover in cod-Italian “tough guy”, pronouncing “gas” like “guess”. We see high overhead shots of a dark rainy soundstage of a city street, empty and artificial with the bright red product placement of a Coca-Cola sign. Our hapless Roxy runs into view and ducks into the alley where he’s pursued by four heavies.
The first surprise: the actors are boys in suits and coats. Then the hoodlums pump Roxy full of lead from their Tommy Guns. No, wait, they splatter him with some kind of egg cream from their new-fangled “splurge guns”. Right in the kisser.
New to Blu-ray is Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, presented as #23 in the Paramount Presents line. This very peculiar gangster musical for kids, with an all-child cast, requires some explaining. Or maybe we could sum it up as “postmodern”, the joke that knows its conventions are a joke and still takes them seriously, more or less, because the conventions are what we have.
For writer-director Alan Parker, the idea began literally as telling stories to his kids. Like every parent who amuses children with made-up tales, it’s a mish-mash of well-worn ideas in a given genre, like fairy tales or westerns or, in this case, Hollywood gangster stories in the fabled Prohibition era of the 1920s and early ’30s. The original spark comes from having the characters be kids.
Or rather, they’re grown-ups played by kids. The characters might have mustaches or crying babies and all the adult paraphernalia, but they’re still played by 12-year-olds mimicking the gestures and slang of movies made long before they were born. That’s the postmodern or distancing element that calls attention to the artifice that gives audiences a doubled self-conscious perspective on the conventions.
I’m describing an adult perspective, of course. For the kids who were the primary audience, it’s just a movie that plugs directly into their natural proclivity for imitating and pretending to be grown-ups. For ’70s kids, old-time gangster movies were less an object of nostalgia than a surreal “other” universe, but they remained a viable fantasy. Kids had been play-acting at cops and robbers, copied from the afternoon movies or the late show, only a little less long than they’d been playing cowboys and Indians.
Even though this movie has kids pretending to be grown-up, they still live in a world of pretend tailored for their age. Instead of driving cars, they drive bike-pedaled contraptions one step up from Flintstone autos. Instead of ordering booze at the speakeasy, they drink the root beer-like sarsaparilla.
The big substitution is pies and egg creams for bullets. Does a shot “kill” them? Do they take the Big Nap? It’s hard to say. Most of the egged characters are never seen again, but at least one is. Then there’s the free-for-all ending, with everyone splattered like a Mack Sennett or Hal Roach comedy and they laugh it off and burst into song, putting the cap on the Big Pretend. Now there’s a fresh meaning for the term “splatter film”.
What about casting? It’s a mix of 1930s Hollywood and 1976 America. One on hand, black actors are cast in typical roles like chauffeurs and boxers, thus underlining the older conventions. On the other, they’re also thrown into racially mixed groups of gangsters and chorus girls that don’t reflect historical accuracy, as if criminal mobs were equal opportunity employers. It doesn’t matter, since such things don’t matter when street kids are pretending either. So we get conventions of both eras occupying the same space.
By the way, this is a British film conceived by Parker, produced by David Puttnam, and made at Pinewood Studios with English technicians, despite a few Americans in the cast for legitimacy. So the parodic distancing of another time and culture is underlined even further.
The strange spectacle is all. The story is nothing. It’s your basic gang war (and therefore a metaphor for larger wars), with one mob moving in on the territory of Fat Sam (John Cassisi), our narrator of Italian-American persuasion. He runs a speakeasy where his moll Tallulah (Jodie Foster) sings.
As for the betwixt-and-between Bugsy, who sometimes works as a boxing promoter but mostly just hangs around, Sam pronounces him “a little too popular with the broads, but a nice guy.” Bugsy makes a play for aspiring singer Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger), who dreams of Hollywood. They trade snappy wisecracks.
Supporting characters include two African-Americans: Fizzy (Albin “Humpty” Jenkins), whose dreams of being a tap dancer are always put off till “Tomorrow” (his big song), and Leroy (Paul Murphy), who doesn’t want to be a boxer but might be drafted into it because “he’s got it”, as the (literal) boys at the boxing gym sing. Their arcs don’t really go anywhere.
You’re mistaken if you think any of this is important. The characters and situations are conceived as clichés you’ve seen many times, so the novelty is the absurdity of watching children strike these adult poses. Is the message that these poses have always been childish, even in adults, both in films and in what we call real life? That grown-ups are just big kids? Could be.
Paul Williams’ Oscar-nominated song score, poised between spoof and pastiche, delivers a semi-serious message about the choices we make in life. We’re almost literally hit in the face with this at the end when the big mob war of flying pies – and this is truly no spoiler – erupts into an epidemic of goodwill through music. The lyrics repeat that you can do anything and it’s not too late to change, so you should “let friendship double up our powers” because “you’re going to be remembered for the things you say and do”.
If only it were so simple in life. Well, between you and me and the lamp-post, it really is, and everybody’s too dumb to know it. It could be raining brains and we wouldn’t get wet. I find nothing wrong with that philosophy, and it might as well be drilled into kids as early as possible. In a bonus, Williams talks about how close to his heart and mind is this project, and he names this and James Frawley’s The Muppet Movie (1979) as coming closest to bluntly explain his philosophy of life.
Oh yes, another passing detail is that all songs are dubbed by professional adult singers whose voices obviously don’t match the characters. This artifice is established at once when Williams’ highly recognizable voice – and please remember that this man was a huge star at the time – emerges from the Black piano player. The other singers are Archie Hahn, Julie McWhirter, and Liberty Williams.
In other words, <i>Bugsy Malone</i> puts all its “let’s pretend” cards on the table from the get-go, and you either go with it or you don’t. In England (and surprisingly France, says Puttnam), a lot of people went with it, and the movie was a hit. In the US, not so much. It became a cult item with nice reviews. New generations caught it on VHS but it never even had an official Region 1 DVD from Paramount. In England, meanwhile, its reputation ballooned.
Aiding in this fact, as Puttnam explains, is that schools may stage productions royalty-free. As a result, he claims that almost literally every child in England has been in a production of Bugsy Malone, the messy highlight of which would be when the meringue-covered cast begins waving their hands in the air and singing “You Give a Little Love”, the message with which Williams wants to brainwash the world. There have been much worse messages sent to kids all over the planet; not every form of indoctrination is malign.
This debut feature from Parker signaled the start of a career with several significant highlights, some of which are musical, e.g. Fame (1980), Pink Floyd” The Wall (1982), The Commitments (1991). If you’ve never seen a child performance from Jodie Foster, you could see right away that this kid’s going places, as she’s giving a natural performance in a sea of broad posturing.
Let me confess that I’ve never been overly charmed by this film, which seems a bit long for its 93 minutes, and this 45th-anniversary remastering of the soft-focus charade doesn’t convince me I’ve missed the boat. It feels like an intellectual achievement along the lines of Brechtian “alienation” more than emotional fun.
At the same time, I understand why Bugsy Malone has fans. Williams writes good songs and the whole production has a good-natured, uncynical vibe. When push comes to meringue, I hope I never come down against making choices for love and friendship. If I do, slap me with a pie in the kisser.