Bugsy Malone (1976/Gangster Musical)
PLEASE NOTE: This is a DVD that it is
supposed can only be operated on machines capable of playing back Region 3 DVDs
in the NTSC format, though this one actually played on all the NTSC U.S. Region
1 machines we tried. This great title
can be ordered from our friends at HKFlix.com through their website:
They have this and hundreds of other great, usually very
hard to get titles that are often long overdo to his the U.S. DVD market. Be sure to visit their site for more details
on that as well.
Sound: B Extra: D Film: B
Alan Parker is a director who has had as many commercial
and critical hits as misses. For every Midnight
Express, Pink Floyd – the Wall and even Evita, there has been
a Life Of David Gale, Come See The Paradise, Mississippi
Burning and (yes) Fame and Commitments. It is ironic then that his feature film
directorial debut, Bugsy Malone, is still one of his best films ever. It is a Gangster film in the 1920s/1930s
genre mode, but it is also a Musical, which seems more likely now than in 1976
as the genre went into slow decline.
However, Parker wrote the script and the big twist here is that the
entire cast features children.
In one of his best-ever role, Scott Baio is a natural in
the title role of the very popular “Lucky Luciano” type who everyone
likes. This helps him to some extent
when a gangland war breaks out between two gang bosses. Fat Sam (John Cassisi stealing at least as
many scenes as Foster. He later was on
TV’s Barney Miller and its spin-off Fish) is the Italian crime
boss ready to duke it out on every level with Dandy Dan (the late Martin Lev
doing a really strong job of capturing that type of sophisticated gentleman
from the era just about every “prestigious, respectable” actor today has fallen
on their face trying to do often today).
Jodie Foster is on the cover of the DVD case instead of Baio as
singer/sex siren Tallulah, though I wish some of the poster art was included
somewhere. The cast also includes
Florrie Dugger as “tough good girl” Blousey Brown, Dexter Fletcher as Baby Face
and Jonathan Scott-Taylor (Damien from Omen 2) as a reporter. Most of them are unknowns, but they are
exceptionally good and not the precocious brats most Hollywood films offer
The music is one of the best things
composer/singer/songwriter Paul Williams, who was red-hot in the 1970s. He even played the title character in Brian
De Palma’s awkward The Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) where he also
wrote all the music, but has fared much better as The Penguin in the most
recent animated cycle of Batman.
Here, his work shines in what is one of his most lasting works. Not bad for a guy who wrote standards like We’ve
Only Just Begun, Rainy Days & Mondays, Evergreen (with
Barbra Streisand), Just An Old fashioned Love Song and Where Do I Go
From Here? from director Michael Cimino’s directorial debut Thunderbolt
& Lightfoot with Clint Eastwood.
The songs featured include:
Bugsy Malone (the title song)
I Could Have Been Anything I Wanted To Be
Fat Sam’s Grand Slam Speakeasy
I’m Feeling Fine
So You Want To Be A Boxer
Down & Out
You Give A Little Love
That’s Why They Call Him Dandy
and the show-stopping My Name Is Tallulah
Foster initially voiced that last track like all the music
by the cast members, though she commented later in bewilderment why her voice
was replaced with a Betty Boop-sound alike voice, which contradicts her Mae
West appearance as Tallulah. All the
voices were later replaced/dubbed by adult singers, which is ironically why the
tracks sound so good, being cut under stricter recording studio control. There are remarkably no extras, despite the
history of the actors and filmmakers, nor any piece on the film in its recent
revival as a stage musical. I wonder if
the original singing of the cast survives somehow. However, for the record, this was one of Gene Siskel’s favorite
films and rarely had he been more right about a little-seen film. I bet The Coen Brothers used this film as
one of their models for their amazing Miller’s Crossing (1990, reviewed
elsewhere on this site).
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING ON THE DVD:
Though the DVD case says this is a Region 3 NTSC DVD, the
fact is that it played well on all of our Region 1 players, a big break to
those who know the film and are sick of waiting for it to come out in the U.S.,
most likely from Paramount. The case
also says this is a 4 X 3/1.33 X 1 full screen presentation, the film is
letterboxed for the first time ever on home video. Though not anamorphic, the 1.85 X 1 image looks terrific and was
shot by two cinematographers Parker would spend his career working with: Peter Biziou and Michael Seresin. Biziou shot Pink Floyd – the Wall and
Mississippi Burning, while Seresin shot Midnight Express, Fame,
Birdy, Come See The Paradise and Angel Heart. Needless to say this film features the best
of both their work in one place, which says something because of their exceptional
camera eye. Add the amazing costumes,
production design and detail, and you get one of the moist underrated Musical
films ever made.
Paramount did issue it full frame (tunnel vision?) in a
12” LaserDisc so old, it did not even have digital sound or stereo. Instead, it had analog FM monophonic sound,
which is the same as the Hi-Fi on old VHS & Beta tapes! Film prints in the U.S. have also always
been monophonic as well, so imagine the shock when this turned out not only to
be a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but one of the best we had heard lately? The music at least had to have been
preserved in stereo, possibly magnetic tracks, because the sound here is a
revelation in its depth, fullness and detail.
Sounding like Dolby at its better 448 kilobits-per-second rate, the film
comes alive in ways it never has before and the balance of bass is unusually
good for any Dolby presentation. Sure,
the sound shows its limits versus the latest recording technology, but there is
not as much harmonic distortion as expected.
I would love to hear this in MLP or DTS of any kind.
The only issue that is left to address is the
choreography. Gillian Gregory handled
that. Though not as sloppy as the kind
of quick-shooting dancing of MTV music videos (which even Paula Abdul was
guilty of at her peak), but it certainly is not as tight as the best dancing
from the MGM and similar Hollywood Musicals.
Still, it works well enough for the film, being more of a hit than miss
in itself. Parker and Williams had to
know that Gangster and Musicals were the big genre films that sound brought
in. The controversial David Puttnam (Chariots
Of Fire) executive produced this film, the man who said when he took over
running Columbia Pictures that the big salaries of stars had to go when Coca-Cola
first bought the company was quickly gone from that studio, but he was a good
film producer just the same. Bugsy
Malone is one of his best works too and with a great DVD like this from
Panorama, it is a must see for everyone.
If you did not like the film if you have actually seen it, try this
edition and be surprised by the difference.
- Nicholas Sheffo