Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker, 1976)

Bugsy Malone is the last great musical.” – John Burgess, THE GUARDIAN.

Drafthouse Films LogoIt’s 1929.  A vicious mob war is tearing the city apart.  One man is caught in the middle.  And no one has hit puberty yet.

Get splurged with this offbeat slapstick gangster musical that features ruthless mobsters, gin hall singers and hard-nosed cops .. played exclusively by a cast of children.  Showcasing the talents of a pre-Chachi Scott Baio and a 13 year-old Jodie Foster (fresh off playing a child prostitute for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver), Sir Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone is the most elaborate game cops and robbers ever attempted.  Baio is Bugsy Malone, a small-time boxing promoter who gets mixed up with some pint-sized gangs competing to take over the “sarsaparilla racket” with a cache of “splurge guns” – Tommy Guns that shoot gobs of custard and take their victim out of commission.  Goofing on cliches of prohibition-era gangster pics, the film plays off the absurdity of miniature mobsters talking up dancers at speakeasies and chasing each other in Model T pedal cars, all while supported by Broadway-style song and dance numbers written (and sometimes performed) by Paul Williams.  This gangster epic will appeal to kids and adults alike, and the only thing criminal is how cute these crooks are as they wage their pocket-sized mob war.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with writer-director Sir Alan Parker
  • Optional “Sing-A-Long” version
  • “From Sketch to Screen” – rough shot sketches synched to the film’s soundtrack
  • After They Were Famous: Bugsy Malone, a 2003 retrospective on the film made from British television
  • Trailers
  • Photo Gallery
  • Production Art Gallery including sketched and full painted concept art
  • 32-page booklet featuring an essay by Sir Alan Parker on the making of the film and a new essay by film scholar Kier-La Janisse

Splurge Edition – Package Includes:

  • Bugsy Malone on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 3 hours of bonus material!
  • DRM-free Digital Download of the film in 1080p, 720p, and mobile/tablet formats
  • Instant download of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Paul Williams
  • 27″ x 40″ reversible poster
  • Parker’s graphic novel adaptation of Bugsy Malone, illustrated by Graham Thompson

The term “unique” is one that gets thrown around often too easily.  It means singular, one of a kind, and unlike anything else.  The word gets abused to describe things that stand out or that are memorable, things that epitomize their type rather than being a type unto themselves.  Sir Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, however, is unique.  There is nothing else like it and probably never will be.  It is a pastiche of 1920s musicals and gangster films, populated entirely by middle school- and junior high school-aged children portraying adults.  And not just adults – con men, criminals, showgirls, and floozies.  Yet these hoods and dames occupy an unselfconscious world of childhood dress-up complete with custard-shooting Tommy Guns, pedal-powered sedans, and baseball equipment doubling as combat gear.  It is a film full is dissonances, where child actors lip-sync to adult voices singing adult themes, yet it manages to preserve its own bizarre coherence.  Perhaps its closest kin is The Terror in Tiny Town (Sam Newfield, 1938), although that comparison would certainly do Sir Alan’s film a disservice.

The plot of Bugsy Malone is relatively straightforward.  Fat Sam (John Cassisi) runs the city’s sarsaparilla racket and the Grand Slam speakeasy, but is being pushed out by Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) and his crew compliments of their “splurge guns,” rapid-fire custard-launching firearms that “finish” their targets.  Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio), a charismatic boxing promoter without much going for him, hangs around Sam’s club trying to win the favour of an aspiring performer named Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger) and avoiding the interests of the show’s star and Sam’s main squeeze, Tallulah (Jodie Foster).  In need of some cash, Bugsy agrees to accompany Sam on a meeting with Dan, and when it turns out to be a trap, Sam is only able to escape with Bugsy’s help.  The exchange fully embroils Bugsy in the turf war, preventing his flight to Hollywood with Blousey and leading to a violent (and custard-ey) ambush when Bugsy discovers where Dan’s hiding his weaponry.  The film concludes with its infamously massive pie fight and its transcendent final number, “You Give a Little Love,” where past grudges are forgiven, custard-killings are wiped away, and Bugsy and Blousey leave for Hollywood.

Bugsy Malone Custard CastWatching the film is a decidedly unusual experience, and it’s somewhat challenging to decide how exactly to receive Bugsy Malone as it’s never easily one thing.  The premise that the film is cast entirely with kids has real novelty in its early stages but wanes as the plot unfolds and as the viewer becomes familiar with the characters, yet Parker never lets its strange atmosphere diffuse completely.  Assassinations by custard and pedal-powered car chases never let the idea of dress-up, of a childhood imagination made real, remove itself from Bugsy Malone‘s gangland narrative.  At times, these moments are openly dissonant, such as by the mix of child-proportioned and adult-sized sets, or during the film’s musical numbers where child actors take to song and adult voices come out (often in contrast to the child’s own speaking voice).  The effect can be unnerving, although it also has the air of playfulness, of lip-synching into a hair brush while dancing in your bedroom.  At other times, the effect seems openly transgressive, such as when a dolled-up Foster performs “My Name is Tallulah” and reminds her audience that “When they talk about Tallulah / You know what they say / No one south of Heaven’s / Gonna treat you finer / Tallulah had her training / In North Carolina.”  If the sexual implications of her company isn’t explicit enough (“You don’t have to be lonely”), that third person objectification of herself brings it home.  The “My Name is Tallulah” sequence is just the most obvious moment of sexual discomfort that Bugsy Malone offers, as the film is full of prancing, barely pubescent showgirls, particularly during the “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” sequence, and Foster’s smoky-voice, asking Bugsy in one instance to “come over here and smear my lipstick.”  Yet, even in these moments, the innocence of Bugsy Malone is never lost, as if the discomfort of such scenes relate less to the kids (whose lack of self-consciousnesses preserves the idea of play-acting without necessarily appreciating the full-implications of their behaviour) and leaves any discomfort in the viewer to fall squarely in their own lap (so to speak).  The film succeeds by constructing a nebulous dream world, loaded with childhood frolics and fantasies of adult life while set in the gin-soaked, Pre-Code film genres of old Hollywood.  Parker, who created the film with his own kids and got the idea to cast only children from his son, sets up an elaborate game of hopscotch in the film, propping Bugsy Malone precariously up on one foot and then letting the movie jump, bounce, and play within its own set of particular rules.  Heck, what true film fan and kid-at-heart wouldn’t want to carouse around the tailored world of Bugsy Malone themselves?

kinopoisk.ruRep titles have been slow in coming from Drafthouse Films, but we still love the label, having recently enjoyed screenings of Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2012) and Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters (2014), and we continue to have strong hopes for older titles finding a benefactor in Drafthouse.  Bugsy Malone screened at the last Fantastic Fest as a repertory selection, perhaps putting the film forward as a potential option for the label.  A hi-def Drafthouse release of Parker’s film would fill a void left by the now out of print UK Blu-ray edition and given that Bugsy Malone has never had a disc release in North America.  There are plenty of posters and cover treatments to choose between for potential packaging.  In this case, we’ll pass on the more minimal designs in favour of this loud and ornate poster full of content and art deco goodness.

Credits:  We’ve avoided discussions of the film’s production as Parker’s essay and the After They Were Famous episode do excellent jobs canvassing the very interesting history of creating this singular film.  Curious readers should click on the links above to delve farther into the strange world of Bugsy Malone.  The audio commentary, the “Sing-A-Long” version, the “From Sketch to Screen” feature, and the production art and behind-the-scenes galleries are all extras from past disc editions of the film, and the graphic novel actually exists as well, published by Harper Collins.  Kier-La Janisse was selected to contribute an essay given her involvement in the book Kid Power! and the fact that Bugsy Malone is currently touring around North America as part of the volume’s promotion.   The cover summary is adapted from various sources including Phil Nobile Jr’s retro review for Bad Ass Digest, Paul Corupe’s summary as part of the Kid Power! series, and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s summary of the film.

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