Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week our pick is a small tribute to the recently departed Alan Parker as we take a look at his oddly wonderful gangster picture, Bugsy Malone.
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
Film fans lost a legend recently with the passing of filmmaker Alan Parker. His filmography is devoid of conventional box-office hits, but a quick look at his movie titles reveals his penchant for delivering memorable films including Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980), Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), Birdy (1984), Angel Heart (1987), and Mississippi Burning (1988). He was never a director trapped with genre or expectation as evident with his moves between drama, comedy, musicals, and more, but nowhere is that “outside of the box” style more prevalent than with his feature debut.
Bugsy Malone (1976) is a gangster picture about warring factions that takes time for character beats, romance, and a message about taking control of your own destiny. It’s also a musical with original songs written (and occasionally performed) by the great Paul Williams. Oh, and did I mention the cast consists entirely of children?
What’s it about?
An accountant for the mob runs, panicked, through the city streets. Three men follow and gun him down in an alleyway. There’s a war on between organized crime outfits — Fat Sam (John Cassisi) runs a snazzy nightclub alongside a handful of shady schemes, while Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) is living the high life as king of the city — and into it walk two people unaware of what’s heading their way. Blousey (Florence Garland) is a wannabe singer looking for a big break, and Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is a man of many talents hoping for a legitimate paycheck but willing to do some dirty work for Sam if the money’s right.
Dan takes the upper hand after getting those hands on automatic weapons, and with his back against the wall Sam makes a last ditch stand against the violent takeover. Bugsy’s trying to hold on to Blousey even as he’s being pursued by Sam’s girl, Tallulah (Jodie Foster), but romance becomes the least of anyone’s concerns as armed henchman converge for a final showdown at Fat Sam’s Grand Slam speakeasy.
What makes it sublime?
A gangster-themed musical with a cast whose average age is twelve-years-old is no easy undertaking, and Parker’s decision to tackle it as his writer/director feature debut shows a filmmaker fueled as much by confidence as he was by madness. Impressive sets, production design, and costuming, mostly built and crafted at the historic Pinewood Studios, help bring the film to life, and Parker unleashes kids throughout all of it. Gangsters, molls, dancers, sidekicks, dames, working stiffs — all of them are played by kids.
Acting-wise, that choice leaves something of a mixed bag with the mostly amateur cast sharing more enthusiasm than pure talent, but there are plenty of standouts. Cassisi is fantastic as the over the top Fat Sam chewing his way through every scene, while Lev plays his equally entertaining counterpart as a slick, cool crime boss. Albin ‘Humpty’ Jenkins shines as a club janitor pining for the chance to audition as a dancer, future filmmaker Dexter Fletcher is crazy great as the smallest gangster, Baby Face, and others are memorable throughout. All of them, though, play in the shadow of a thirteen-year-old Foster. She schools them all and plays her scheming moll with sass and attitude (“I like my men at my feet.”), and while she’s a supporting player it’s clear she’s the one destined for big-screen stardom.
The child cast is fun and adds a surreal feeling early on, and Parker deserves credit for the diversity among them. While some period films aim for historical “realism” in that department, Parker’s film casts Black kids and Asians among the gangsters, dancers, and supporting characters. Jenkins’ Fizzy gets the film’s most heartfelt song and emotional beat, Paul Murphy gets to save Bugsy’s life with several enthusiastic punches, and John Lee gets a lot of screen time as one of Dandy Dan’s dapper thugs. (On that last one there’s some confusion as the character of Benny Lee is clearly played by an Asian boy despite IMDB’s listing of a white guy named John Rafter Lee, so I don’t know what’s going on there and am open to corrections.)
It’s not long, though, before viewers are drawn into the story to the point where the presence of children becomes the norm. The script, kid-centric gags, and songs step up to share center stage resulting in a sometimes absurd, always engaging time. The automatic weapons? They shoot whip cream puffs. The cars? They’re all pedal-driven meaning the driver brakes by pressing their feet to the ground Flintstones-style which makes for an especially entertaining car chase sequence.
Parker’s script for Bugsy Malone is suitably playful, and while the dialogue feels like G-rated gangster talk he has fun elsewhere. When Sam speaks Italian to one of his henchmen the poor guy doesn’t understand — so Sam tells him to read the subtitles. One character pauses mid song & dance to actually say “Hey look at me, I’m dancing!” It’s prohibition, so of course Sam has an illegal sarsaparilla business on the side. A radio newscaster interrupts his own breaking news with “We interrupt our interruption…” It’s silliness played straight and without punchlines — remove the child actors and concessions to their age, and you’d have a mostly straightforward gangster script for much of its running time.
The kids break into song and dance pretty regularly, and these scenes are just as important an element to the film’s lasting appeal even with the occasionally mistimed choreography. Their singing voices are dubbed by adult professionals, sometimes including Williams, and there are some great numbers here. “Bad Guys” and “So You Wanna Be a Boxer” are terrific with the former being an especially witty take on henchmen, and it’s hard to argue with the subsequent Academy Award nomination the film received for Best Music/Original Song Score.
And in conclusion…
Look, Bugsy Malone is a good-looking production with child actors ruling the roost. There’s some roughness to the acting and dancing at times, and it’s silly on the face of it all, but the film remains a weirdly appealing and wholly endearing joy. The songs, like the narrative, build towards a rousing conclusion complete with an epic shootout (with whip cream), a mashup of songs, and the relief of kids being allowed to be kids. The takeaway plays into the innocence of children given a wake-up call about the choices they make in life. They don’t have to grow up to be bad guys, mobsters, or thugs — they can choose love and friendship instead. And maybe they can just eat the whip cream?