Filmmaker Alan Parker died in July 2020. In a career that spanned three decades, Parker left behind an extraordinary legacy of eclectic films. Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at Parker’s filmography.
Alan Parker was born in London in 1944. He was raised in a working class family with no connection to the film industry and his first adult employment was working for an advertising agency. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Parker began scripting and directing television commercials. His advertising work led Parker to direct a number of short films and he wrote the script for the 1971 romance Melody, a film that was influential on some later filmmakers including Alejandro González Iñárritu and Wes Anderson.
Parker’s first theatrical feature was 1976’s Bugsy Malone, a musical about the infamous gangster which was cast entirely with child actors including Scott Baio and Jodie Foster. Musicals would dominate Parker’s career and he went on to helm movies such as Fame, Pink Floyd: The Wall, The Commitments, and Evita. Parker’s musical films were notable for their unusual style. Musicals had been popular in Hollywood throughout the 1950s and early 60s but the genre fell out of fashion by the time Parker became a director. While he resurrected the musical genre, Parker reimagined what a musical could be. The Hollywood musicals of the studio era had been very stagey and songs were performed like soliloquies with the story pausing for a musical interlude. Parker’s films were much more cinematic and they unmoored the music from the image. The music of these films also departed from a theatrical Broadway sound in favor of contemporary pop and rock songs.
But Alan Parker also directed plenty of films that weren’t musicals including Midnight Express, Angel Heart, and Angela’s Ashes. That variety distinguished Parker’s career and he proved capable of a variety of subjects, styles, and genres. But like any filmmaker there are themes that run through his work. Parker’s films display a social consciousness and an awareness of economic disparities as well as recurring stylistic choices like dramatic lighting and downbeat conclusions.
Bugsy Malone was Alan Parker’s first feature film directing gig. The 1976 musical was about the infamous gangster but it featured a cast of child actors including Scott Baio and Jodie Foster. The film was indicative of the creative and idiosyncratic qualities that would characterize Parker’s career. Allegedly, Parker was ambivalent about Bugsy Malone for many years but he later came around to be proud of it. The film has since been adapted into a stage production.
Alan Parker’s second directorial feature was Midnight Express. While Bugsy Malone was a G rated family film, Midnight Express was just the opposite. Based on true events, Midnight Express was about an American college student who is caught attempting to smuggle narcotics out of Turkey. The movie was a success and established Parker as a serious filmmaker. It was also a major step in the career of Parker’s collaborators. Midnight Express was written by Oliver Stone and the music was composed by Giorgio Moroder; both won Academy Awards for their work on Midnight Express and went on to have long and successful careers in Hollywood.
Following the dark and gritty Midnight Express, Alan Parker directed 1980’s Fame, a drama about teenagers attending a high school for artistically gifted youth. The movie used the high school as a microcosm of the entertainment industry and the teens encounter assorted moral dilemmas and personal crises all while trying to create their art and launch their careers. Fame got mixed reviews in 1980 but the critical assessment has improved with time. The movie was a financial success and garnered lots of award nominations especially for its soundtrack. Fame was rated R by the MPAA but it inspired a television series, a stage musical, and a 2009 remake that was rated PG.
Shoot the Moon
After the adolescent drama of Fame, Alan Parker turned to adult matters for 1982’s Shoot the Moon. This film was a domestic drama about a couple, played by Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, who are going through a divorce. It was a personal project for Parker, who had been through his own divorce, and stylistically it is very restrained. Shoot the Moon got good reviews and other critical accolades but it was a financial failure.
Pink Floyd: The Wall
The same year as the austere Shoot the Moon, Alan Parker also released one of his most ambitious and beloved films: Pink Floyd: The Wall. The movie was initially conceived as a concert film to be intercut with animated and dramatic sequences. The project gradually morphed into something else. The film is narrative but not in the style of a straightforward drama or a traditional Hollywood musical. MTV had recently debuted and popularized the music video format which created new styles and opened up the possibilities of cinematic communication. The Wall was essentially a ninety-minute music video for Pink Floyd’s 1979 concept album but it was distinct from most of the musical shorts playing on MTV. Where a lot of music videos were promotional pieces and often played to narcissistic and materialistic rock star images, The Wall was about angst, social unrest, and self-destruction. While not indecipherable, The Wall is challenging and impressionistic. The movie combines naturalistic and surrealistic images as well as live action and animated sequences to communicate the weariness of its main character and his dissatisfaction with society. Production was difficult due to clashing personalities and technical challenges; Alan Parker called the making of The Wall one of the most miserable experiences of his career. But the end result was an enduring rock and roll classic that we haven’t seen the likes of since.
Following Shoot the Moon and Pink Floyd: The Wall, Alan Parker’s next directorial project was 1984’s Birdy. Throughout the 1980s filmmakers dealt with the legacy of the Vietnam War and Birdy was one of many titles to address post-traumatic stress disorder. Birdy stars Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage as longtime friends and war veterans. Modine’s character obsesses over birds and comes back from the war behaving like one. The film was well received and Birdy won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Birdy also featured the first film score by pop musician Peter Gabriel.
Following Birdy, Alan Parker continued to diversify his filmography with 1987’s Angel Heart. The movie was a supernatural thriller about a private investigator searching for a missing person. This was an unusual picture at the time; in the mid-1980s the horror genre was dominated by slasher movies and had become very jokey and self-conscious. Angel Heart was serious and mature. It was out of step with the film market of the time which may explain why it did not find an audience in 1987. But Angel Heart has since gained a cult following and Christopher Nolan cited Angel Heart as an inspiration for his film Memento.
Several of Alan Parker’s films were controversial. Midnight Express dramatized the conditions inside a Turkish prison and the film was accused of racism on account of its brutal portrait of Turkish prison guards. Angel Heart caused a ratings fight between Parker and the MPAA when the original cut of the film was rated X. It was ultimately edited to achieve an R. 1988’s Mississippi Burning was also controversial. This film was a fictionalized drama about the murder of civil rights activists in 1964 Mississippi. Mississippi Burning has not aged well. The story centers upon a pair of white FBI agents who investigate the murders. The fact that white characters were put front and center in a story about the civil rights movement was a major point of contention. This was all the more troubling because the two white protagonists were FBI agents and the film ignored the historical reality that the FBI had actually intimidated and attempted to undermine the civil rights movement. Despite the controversy and lukewarm reviews, Mississippi Burning was a modest box office success at the time and was nominated for numerous awards including an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Parker.
Come See the Paradise
After Mississippi Burning, Alan Parker took on another historical injustice in 1990’s Come See the Paradise. The film was a romance between an Irish-American man and a Japanese-American woman set in the World War II era. Come See the Paradise has the distinction of being one of very few films to dramatize the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. Unfortunately, the public stayed away from the movie. However Randy Edelman’s score to Come See the Paradise has enjoyed a second life. The track “Fire in a Brooklyn Theatre” has been repurposed in many movie trailers.
After the controversy of Mississippi Burning and the box office failure of Come See the Paradise, Alan Parker went back to the musical genre with 1991’s The Commitments. Set in Dublin, an aspiring musician gathers a ragtag group of fellow Irish youths to form a soul band called “The Commitments.” They play at pubs and local venues while developing their sound and struggling to keep the group together. This is one of the classic “getting the band together” movies. The story matches the immaturity of youth with the fickle nature of the music scene and the combination is volatile, funny, and highly entertaining.
The Road to Wellville
Among the most unusual titles in Alan Parker’s filmography was 1994’s The Road to Wellville. Based on true events, The Road to Wellville takes place at a sanitarium run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the creator of the corn flakes breakfast cereal, who had some off the wall ideas about health. The film had a scatological sense of humor which suited the subject matter but didn’t impress critics and earned Parker some of the worst reviews of his career.
Alan Parker returned to the musical genre with Evita. This 1996 film was an adaptation of the stage musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber which told the life of Eva Perón, the wife of former Argentine President Juan Perón. The film reunited Alan Parker with Oliver Stone, following their previous collaboration on Midnight Express, and Stone wrote the screenplay. The film version of Evita had been stuck in development for years with various directors and stars attached at different times. Production finally went forward with Madonna cast in the title role. This was a controversial decision. Madonna was known for her scandalous (for the time) music videos and stage shows and her track record as an actress was inconsistent at best. Production of Evita was cause for protest in Argentina, where some of the citizens feared that the movie would slander Perón’s legacy. Those fears were assuaged when the movie was finally released and Evita received numerous accolades and was a box office hit. Evita is an interesting entry in Parker’s filmography. Although it was another musical film, it hewed together the post-MTV filmmaking style with the sensibilities of classic Hollywood musicals that Parker had eschewed early on in his career.
Following Evita, Alan Parker tried his hand at another biographical film, 1999’s Angela’s Ashes. The movie was an adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir of his Irish Catholic childhood. The movie was an impressive work of period filmmaking in the way it conveyed the visceral feel of a specific time and place. The story of Angela’s Ashes is mostly tragic but it also has plenty of humor and Parker and his fellow filmmakers handle the tone of the film exceptionally well. For whatever reason, critics were cool to the movie and it didn’t do well at the box office.
The Life of David Gale
The last film that Alan Parker directed was The Life of David Gale. Again tapping into a controversial subject matter, The Life of David Gale was a drama about a prisoner facing a death sentence. The movie was not a success either commercially or critically. Alan Parker’s sons Alex and Jake collaborated with their father on The Life of David Gale and provided the music which occasionally resurfaces in film trailers.
When we think of the New Hollywood era, the names most frequently associated with that time are Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola, and Spielberg. But Alan Parker deserves to be in that company as well. Like those other filmmakers, he worked within the Hollywood system while bringing new sensibilities and styles to established genres. Parker’s directing credits may not have been as numerous as some of these other filmmakers, but the body of work he left behind was incredibly diverse in style and subject matter and titles such as Bugsy Malone and Pink Floyd: The Wall and Evita make Parker one of the most significant figures in the history of musical filmmaking.
Here is a 1997 interview with Alan Parker conducted by David Frost.