Bugsy Malone is one of those movies whose existence is very difficult to explain. It’s a pastiche of gangsters and Hollywood clichés, filmed in England and set in a fantastical New York. It’s also a musical, and the entire cast is children. The children do not sing, that’s done by adult voices. And despite aspects of parody, it’s not strictly some kind of farce.
Scott Baio (not quite 16 at the time of shooting, and he looks young for his age) is the titular Bugsy, not exactly a gangster, but he’s close to the life. He’s a regular at the best speakeasy in town, Fat Sam’s Grand Slam, where the kids watch a cabaret led by the chanteuse Tallulah (in a performance by Jodie Foster that’s almost too assured for the film.) An aspiring ingénue, Blousey Brown, comes to audition. Fat Sam blows her off, but she catches Bugsy’s eye. She tries to chase him off with late 30s era tough girl dialogue, but Bugsy knows what he likes, and he’s not easy to get rid of.
The parallel main stories of the film are about Bugsy courting Blousey, and a new gang coming to town to take over Fat Sam’s multiple businesses. These stories intertwine, but are both extremely loosely plotted. We know Bugsy’s making a play for Blousey, we know Fat Sam’s criminal operation is under siege. Both plots are mostly excuses to patch together fun scenes that are reminiscent of classical Hollywood, without ever stooping to boring direct reference or parody.
There’s an audition scene where Blousey, after a parade of terrible acts, almost gets to show her stuff as a singer. She and Bugsy have a cute dinner in a diner with an exasperated wait staff. Fat Sam has to deal with setback after setback as a new gang muscles in on his turf, and his earthy Italian middle class digs are contrasted with the sophisticated European estate of his devious competition. And while it’s mostly funny, there’s never the sense of kids playing dress-up. The entire conceit of the film is winking at the audience, so the story and the performances never have to.
There’s even a real sense of deadly stakes in the film. In the backdrop of the gang war, a deadly new weapon called the Splurge gun is turning the tide. These look like tommy guns but rapidly fire out bullets of cream, making the more traditional gang-warfare weapon of cream pies obsolete. Of course, the cream pie to the face is a tried and true comedy cliché. But one of the weird conceits of Bugsy Malone is that, in this strange child-lead gangland fantasia, this is as deadly as a belly full of lead. Kids that get creamed, we don’t see them no more.
This sense of finality in the story really resonated with me when I watched Bugsy Malone as a kid. And it’s part of writer/director Alan Parker’s real achievement, taking a tacitly absurd concept as seriously as could be endured…but no further. Parker has a distinct sense of visual style – his movies have a classical feel without classical constraints. The attention to period detail is impeccable. All of the costumes look like they could have come from a classic Hollywood studio’s costuming department. One stroke of visual genius is simultaneously a great joke and solves a genuine problem. All of the cars in the film are purpose built to fit kids’ dimensions, but kids don’t drive, so they’re actually made with bicycle pedals under the driver’s seat.
This new Blu-ray release by Paramount Presents is the first in North America, where the film was not a big hit. It was in the U.K., where the film’s longevity was ensured by Alan Parker’s decision to allow it to be performed by schools as a live musical without a fee. There isn’t much information on the release’s box about the transfer besides saying it was remastered from the original elements. Regardless, the film looks immaculate on this release.
Tying everything together are Paul Williams’ songs, and the major artistic decision that came with them. Despite being a musical cast entirely with children, all of the singing is done by adults, primarily by Paul Williams himself. Both Alan Parker and Williams have apparently regretted that decision, and wish that they had let the children sing their songs. I understand that regret, but think it would have been a disastrous choice for the film. The songs aren’t necessarily pitched at child-like emotions. Bugsy Malone is essentially about children at play, and children do not play at being children. They don’t have to, they’re already there. They play at adulthood, and so having the grown-up voices (singing fairly grown-up songs) fits the film’s rather delicate tone better than piping children’s voices would have.
And the film does have a delicate tone. If it played things too seriously, it would be too ridiculous to watch. Too loose or goofy, and it would give the game away and become irritating. But Bugsy Malone finds the right balance. It has the intensity of a kid who is really into pretend, up until the exuberant end which turns a (in the world of the film) horrifying massacre into a terrific sing-a-long about friendship. I have no idea how I would introduce this film to someone who has not already succumbed to its charms. It’s funny but not hilarious. It is not particularly fast paced, and there are several aspects of the story that might be incomprehensible to one not raised on classical Hollywood. But I can say, unburdened by any pull of childhood nostalgia, that Bugsy Malone is a unique film that has every opportunity to be a disaster, but comes out a winner.
Bugsy Malone has been released on Blu-ray by Paramount on its Paramount Presents line. The release also includes a digital code for the film. Extras on the disc include two short video features that are new for this release: “Give a Little Love” (7 min), an interview with Paul Williams, and “Filmmaker Focus” (7 min), and interview with executive producer David Puttnam. There are also theatrical trailers included.