At some point last year, a close friend of mine asked if I’d ever heard of a film called Bugsy Malone. I was incredulous… everyone knew Bugsy Malone, right? My childhood in London was filled with weekend reruns, worn out VHS copies, and more than one school theater adaptation of Alan Parker’s audacious gangster musical. But that wasn’t a universal experience. In fact, in the U.S. the film had gained a cult status due to just how few people had ever seen the film after its original 1976 theatrical release. Luckily, the New Beverly had sourced a reel, so my friend and I, and apparently half of Hollywood, got to see it on the big screen. With the sad news of Parker’s passing, I had to write about the movie that shaped so much of my childhood, and whose every word I still know by heart to this day.
Bugsy Malone is the kind of movie that has a setup so ridiculous that every time you watch you have to ask: how did this get made? Parker’s Depression-era gangster flick is a full-fledged musical, which is already unconventional; the real hook, though, is that the entire cast is made up of children. Not Riverdale-style perennial teenagers who are really 25, but actual children, with the eldest of the performers barely in their mid-teens. The secret behind the success of Bugsy Malone is that it’s played entirely straight, with serious, thoughtful, and catchy songs written by Academy Award-winner Paul Williams, the man behind “The Rainbow Connection.”
There’s a dark humor to the entire endeavor as (a young) Scott Baio’s titular crook tries to make good whilst escaping the burgeoning gang war between Dandy Dan and Fat Sam taking over the streets of his city. Kids kill other kids with ice cream “splurge guns” and cream pies. (Though we see them all reunited and alive at the end to ensure viewers and studio honchos that the deaths weren’t real.) There’s a musical number in a homeless men’s shelter, numerous assassinations, shootouts, and a subplot about Bugsy managing a boxer. Parker is clearly a student of the gangster genre, and the film works both as a kids musical and a satire of the overly dramatic and serious trend of period crime movies about the mob.
Parker’s beautiful oddity stars (a young) Jodie Foster as Tallulah, a sassy lounge singer and gangster’s moll. She’s vibrant and brilliant as always, but her performance was widely overlooked as Bugsy Malone was released the same year as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, which featured the controversial and award-winning performance that would make her a household name. Interestingly, Bugsy Malone also lost out to the dark story of Travis Bickle at Cannes, where both films were nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or.
Foster and Baio weren’t the only stars who had roles in the child gang-land feature. Rocketman director and regular Guy Ritchie collaborator Dexter Fletcher pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role. Doctor Who companion Bonnie Langford plays a stage diva. Quadrophenia’s Phil Daniels spills some spaghetti in a memorable gag. Even reality TV star Lisa Vanderpump has an uncredited role as a girl at Fat Sam’s Speakeasy.
The film grossed only $2.8 million when it was released in the U.S., but was a huge commercial smash in the UK, where it was likewise a critical darling. The film’s popularity spread around the world; in fact, when I first tweeted about it being lesser known in the U.S., a friend of mine from Ethiopia was equally shocked because the film had been so well loved in her home country. In the U.S., the film was lost to time, but that’s changing as the film was recently added to streaming services like Amazon and Pluto TV. You can finally enjoy one of the most unique musicals ever made.
One of the most interesting choices that adds to the surreal nature of the film is the fact that all the kids’ musical numbers are performed by a cast of adults and lip synched by the young actors, leading to an uneven but entertaining aural experience. It was a decision that Williams later mentioned having regrets about: “I’m really proud of the work and the only thing I’ve ever doubted is the choice of using adult voices. Perhaps I should have given the kids a chance to sing the songs.”
When I spoke to Paul Williams at Fantasia Fest last summer, he immediately took note of my accent and was prompted to shared that the film was also one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life. “It is so heartwarming, especially to me as a dad. It’s one of the great heart payments in my life. One is all the videos I get of classes of kids singing ‘The Rainbow Connection,’ and the other is seeing all of these people doing performances of Bugsy Malone.”
Bugsy Malone was only Parker’s first iconic contribution to cinematic history. His catalog is filled with eclectic game changers like Midnight Express, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Fame, Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart, and The Commitments. Even with all of those incredible films under Parker’s belt, Bugsy Malone is closest to my heart.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures