First Time Watch: Bugsy Malone (1976)

By Christian DiMartino

With the recent passing of the great Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning), it seemed like a good time to check out Parker’s directorial debut, Bugsy Malone. This film’s existence has been on my radar for some time. To further that, the idea of it has long sounded intriguing and… bizarre.

On paper, Bugsy Malone sounded really strange to me- in fact, I was kind of nervous to see it. Yet what might even be stranger is that on screen, the final product actually works. Here is a true original- not in terms of story, but in terms of concept- that could have and should have misfired in so many ways, and yet within minutes, the fear quickly faded away. Few filmmakers would attempt to try something this bizarre, or bold, but Parker was not a filmmaker like most.

The film’s central gimmick was brought to my attention before seeing it, but now I will bring it to yours. The name “Bugsy Malone” may ring a bell to some, and if not, it at least probably sounds like what it is: a 1920’s gangster movie. Parker’s Bugsy Malone follows Bugsy’s rise to power, while Bugsy also competes against fellow gangsters Fat Sam and Dandy Dan, and also tries to keep a hold of his dame, Blousey, who is upset with Bugsy after he is seen flirting with Tallulah, a close associate of Fat Sam. Here’s the thing though: the entire cast is made up of children. That’s right, the film might star Scott Baio and Jodie Foster as Bugsy and Tallulah, but they were children at the time. It’s also a musical, with the children lip-syncing the voices of adults. Also, instead of guns that shoot bullets, they shoot marshmallows and pie.

All of this sounds nutty on paper. That’s not to say that it isn’t nutty on screen, but what may surprise you is that after a little bit you just sort of go with its unique flow. The plot isn’t all that special, and sure, some of the lip-syncing seems a little off. Yet you don’t go to Bugsy Malone for the story; you go because it must be seen to be believed. Any slightly wrong directorial choice would have sunk this movie, but Parker never really misses a beat.

The film is light, sunny, funny, and I admired its production values too, from the production and costume design. The songs are also, I gotta say, really good. Written by Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise, The Muppet Movie) these ditties will stay in your head long after the film switches scenes, and when they replay them, you won’t mind. Yet maybe the biggest accomplishment of Bugsy Malone might lie in the fact that, as I watched it, I kept wondering what the film would be like if they had cast adults. Parker, who also wrote the screenplay, had to have known he was onto something… different, here. Never would I have watched something like The Godfather and imagined it with a cast of children, but now that it has been mentioned, that could actually be really funny. Bugsy Malone isn’t a great film, nor Parker’s best, but it’s a fun little filmmaking experiment and a breezy way to spend 90 minutes.

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