There’s really no benefit in trying to make sense of the directorial career of Alan Parker. Over more than a quarter of a century of making movies, the London born filmmaker was hard to peg. He was too creative and flexible not to be considered an auteur, but the wide range of styles and subjects represented in the movies he made probably had a negative impact on his level of esteem.
Think about it: despite garnering two Oscar nominations for directing (Midnight Express – 1979, Mississippi Burning – 1989), and helming a slew of other well-known films, when did you ever hear of anyone referring to Alan Parker as one of the best directors of his era? I grew up on his movies and I can’t remember a single occasion when he made it onto a list of the best working directors, let alone the best ever.
The odd fact of the matter is that the thing that probably hurt Parker the most is what made him so interesting: the ability to do anything.
Parker’s first film, 1976’s Bugsy Malone, sounds absolutely ridiculous in description. A ‘G’ rated musical comedy telling the story of the notorious gangster using an all-child cast (including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio). Who would even attempt such a thing? The degree of difficulty alone would have scared away the most seasoned of directors, let alone a first-timer. Not only did Parker try, he succeeded. While Bugsy didn’t find a large audience in the theater, it was well-reviewed by most critics and even got some awards notice form the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, along with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
In 1978, Parker followed up Bugsy with the harrowing true-life tale of Billy Hayes, a college student attempting to smuggle hash out of Turkey who then endures five years in a Turkish prison before making his escape. The brutal depictions of prison life and Hayes’ near full descent into madness couldn’t have possibly been more different than Bugsy Malone. Unlike its predecessor, Midnight Express was a sizable hit and scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Best Editing, Best Screenplay (Oliver Stone!), and Best Score for Giorgio Moroder’s iconic electronic music.
Another left turn followed just two years later, with Fame, a musical drama depicting the lives of young people at a prestigious performing arts school in New York City. Parker coaxed memorable performances from a large cast of then unknown actors, including Irene Cara, Anne Meara, and Debbie Allen among others. Fame was an even bigger hit than Midnight Express and also garnered six Oscar nominations of its own for screenplay, score, editing, sound, and two for song (with the legendary theme, sung by Cara, winning the prize). An Emmy-winning TV spin-off of the film ran for six seasons from 1982-1987.
Two years later, Parker would return to the big screen–this time with the domestic drama, Shoot The Moon, written by Bo Goldman and starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton. Shoot the Moon is one of the most bracing portraits of a crumbling marriage ever placed onscreen. As great as Finney and Keaton have so often been, one could make a stout argument that they were never better than they were in Shoot the Moon–trading vicious barbs while coming apart at the seams. The ending itself is an all-time gut punch of a close as Finney destroys Keaton’s tennis court before taking a beating from her new lover (played terrifically by Peter Weller), and then as their children run to his aid, Finney reaches out his hand to Keaton and calls for her…The End. Shoot The Moon received excellent reviews, but the box office returns were disappointing and the film was ignored by Oscar (although the Golden Globes did nominate Finney and Keaton). In some ways, Shoot The Moon was not so different than Ordinary People, only where that film offered hope at its close, Shoot The Moon finds only desolation.
Remarkably, that same year, Parker delivered another film that could not have possibly had less in common with its year-mate, Pink Floyd: The Wall. Mixing animation with live action, the mostly dialogue-free musical set to the dystopian album of the same name, The Wall was essentially a 95-minute music video released less than one year after MTV first took to the air. The film became a cultural touchstone and a popular midnight movie for years, even if it was nearly impossible to follow the its story-line. The first time I saw The Wall, I watched it sober. I soon learned why people would tell you to only watch it while you were high. For whatever flaws it may have had, the film is a singular, nightmarish vision of a world bereft of democracy…or something. To say that there is nothing else like it is to practice the art of understatement at the highest level.
After the twin downers of Shoot The Moon and Pink Floyd: The Wall, Parker’s next film was 1984’s comparably gentle and truly wonderful Birdy, starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine as two friends who survive the Vietnam War with wounds both visible (Cage) and unseen (Modine). Set to the music of Peter Gabriel, Birdy is a bit of a miracle. It’s one of those films like Peter Weir’s Fearless where it’s hard to describe to people what happens onscreen and make it sound compelling–so much of the “action” is internal. Based on the novel by William Wharton, Birdy should have been one of those unfilmable books that no one ever dare take a stab at, but Parker did–to wondrous effect. As hard as Birdy might have been to make, it proved impossible to market and disappeared from theaters shortly after it opened. Of all the films that Parker made, I believe it is the one most ripe for rediscovery.
To a sizable cult (which I include myself among), Parker’s next film may have been his greatest. The deeply controversial 1987 voodoo horror film Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke as a seedy detective who may not know who he is, and Robert DeNiro as a character who may be Ol’ Scratch in the flesh. Ostensibly, a post-war private-eye noir about a down on his luck (when was Rourke ever up on his luck on film?) gumshoe sent out by DeNiro to find a missing singer named Johnny Favorite who owes him something more than money. After following Favorite’s trail from New York City to New Orleans, Angel Heart slowly descends into a (possibly literal) hellscape that Rourke’s detective may not survive. Sadly, the film got more attention for the wild sex scene between Rourke and then Cosby Show ingenue Lisa Bonet than for the craft and quality of the overall product. As a filmgoer, I’ve had only a handful of transformative experiences in a theater. Angel Heart was a film that held on to me for years. I’m not sure if I’ve ever quite let it go. Few films have the courage of their convictions–especially when their convictions are so dark, but this one did. I found it impossible to shake.
Parker’s 1988 follow up, Mississippi Burning, fared better with both critics and the public and went on to become his biggest hit since Fame. The film did take on a number of complaints due to playing it loose with the facts and focusing the true story of of the investigation of three slain Civil Rights activists in 1964 on two white cops. While those criticisms are not unfair, there is still much to admire about the film. Gene Hackman gives a towering performance (among his very best) as a good ol’ boy detective willing to cut more than a few corners to get at the truth (the scene where he takes Brad Dourif’s Deputy Sheriff to task in a barber shop is a beat-down on par with Sonny Corleone trash-canning his brother-in-law in The Godfather). Frances McDormand gave a breakout performance as an abused wife, and Badja Djola has a single scene with the town’s racist mayor (R. Lee Ermey) that is so full of tension it is almost unbearable. At one time, Mississippi Burning was considered a frontrunner to win best picture, but the subsequent backlash had a clear impact on the Academy’s membership, and despite receiving six nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (McDormand), Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography, it took home just one trophy for Peter Biziou’s searing work as Director of Photography.
Undeterred, Parker delved back into controversial territory with his next film, 1990’s WW2 internment camp drama, Come See The Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid and Tamlyn Tomita. Reviews were largely respectful, but not strong enough to get moviegoers out to the theater to view such difficult subject matter.
Parker bounced back quickly the next year with the rollicking Irish musical comedy-drama, The Commitments, based on the Roddy Doyle novel of the same name. Once again, Parker made magic working with a cast of unknowns playing a fictional band that almost made it. The film became a much loved success with international audiences, and its soundtrack went on to sell over twelve million copies worldwide. It’s an uproarious film where you can smell the liquor in the wood of the bar top, feel the sweat coming off the stage, and you might even find yourself dodging the spittle spraying from Andrew Strong’s mouth as he belts out soul classics in a manner no white man this side of Van Morrison should be capable of doing. The Commitments may not have been a huge hit, but if you ever run into someone who has seen it, you’re likely to see them roll their head back with joy as they extol its virtues.
Three years would pass before Parker would follow up The Commitments. His next film would prove to be a great flop, and to my mind, his most misunderstood film. The Road To Wellville (based on the T. Coraghessan Boyle novel) was a rather cheeky comedy about John Harvey Kellog’s early 20th century clean living craze at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Decked out in prosthetic teeth that made him look a more than a little like Bugs Bunny, Anthony Hopkins was an absolute hoot as Kellogg, and Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda as married couple who become two upscale “patients” of Kellogg’s are delightful as well. Colm Meaney steals nearly every scene he’s in as a “doctor” who provides “stimulation” to the women of the sanitarium. I first saw The Road To Wellville on video–I had been scared away from the theater by the bad reviews. Seldom in my life have I ever thought that critics have gotten a movie so wrong. Sadly, The Road To Wellville suffered badly at the hands of its critical response upon its release and made only one-fifth of its $25 million budget back.
While Parker had often played with aspects of the musical in a number of his films, it would be his next picture where he would embrace the classical form of the big-budget musical–Evita in 1996. At the time, the casting of Madonna in the lead role caused quite the kerfuffle among critics and fans of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical. Those qualms were largely set aside once the film was released. Madonna wasn’t just “okay” in the role, she was quite good. Just as good (and to some minds better) were Antonio Banderas as “Che,” and Jonathan Pryce as Juan Perone. Evita did well box office-wise in the United States and even better outside of America. The film was nominated for five Oscars (winning for Best Original Song), and won three Golden Globes (including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical). It was the pinnacle of Madonna’s film career, but sadly the last triumph of Alan Parker.
Parker’s final two films, 1999’s Angela’s Ashes and 2003’s The Life of David Gale were underwhelming. The former was a relatively faithful adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir, but despite a well-mounted production and fine work by Emily Watson, the film lacked the sort of magic that allows it to sing, leaving it to be considered one of the bigger disappointments of that year. The Life of David Gale with Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet was a well meaning film about the death penalty, but a full-on disaster with critics and audiences.
After the back to back failures of Ashes and Gale, Parker quietly stopped making movies. I suppose it would have been nice for us lovers of cinema if had he kept going and possibly recaptured his mojo, but it was never to be. Still, look at all that he left us with. Think of the variety, scope, and quality of his fourteen films. Did he ever get his due? I think not.
In the end, the trouble with the career of Alan Parker is he wasn’t good at doing just one thing–he was good at doing everything. And so, that is what he did–just about everything. What a pity it is that we didn’t make greater note of it while he was alive.
Alan Parker died today, he was 76 years old.