Inexplicably beloved, especially by European fans, this bizarre family film is a musical homage to ’30s gangster movies that stars a cast of children whose singing voices are dubbed by adults. Befitting the juvenile cast, certain elements of criminal culture are softened, so instead of shooting each other with bullets, the crooks blast each other with “splurge guns,” which shoot gobs of whipped cream. Similarly, drivers propel cars by pushing bicycle pedals. Yet instead of completely reimagining the universe of old James Cagney flicks in order to suit kids, writer-director Alan Parker simply slots juveniles into adult clothes and situations. So, for instance, star Scott Baio wears pinstriped suits, and costar Jodie Foster, playing a bad girl, walks around with feather boas and whorish makeup.
The weirdest aspect of the movie, however, is how straight Parker plays the material. Even though he includes campy dialogue and goofy slapstick, Parker employs such a painterly visual quality that if adults occupied the evocative frames instead of children, Bugsy Malone would seem positively dour. The same is true of the picture’s musical aspect. One of the best songs, “Tomorrow,” is the lament of an African-American janitor upset that a nightclub owner won’t allow the janitor to audition for a dancing job. This is kid stuff? Why any of this seemed like a good idea is a mystery, and why Parker considered himself suited to preteen entertainment is equally incomprehensible. Lest we forget, the man’s next movie was the brutal prison drama Midnight Express (1978), wherein Parker proved more adept with rape scenes than with “splurge guns.”
Nonetheless, given Bugsy Malone’s cult-favorite status and the impressive credentials the movie accrued during its original release—including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)—it’s clear that many viewers have discovered virtues in Parker’s oddball endeavor. Presumably, much of the affection fans feel toward Bugsy Malone stems from the unique gifts of tunesmith Paul Williams. Williams’ Bugsy Malone numbers range from perfunctory musical-theater songs to standouts including “Tomorrow” and the ballad “Ordinary Fool.” Hearing these songs delivered by adult singers reveals that Williams was operating at a more sophisticated level than the movie itself. Other points of interest include the presence of Baio, who transitioned from this movie to a lengthy run as streetwise kid Chachi Arcola in the TV series Happy Days, and that of the incomparable Foster, whose other 1976 releases included Freaky Friday and Taxi Driver.
Bugsy Malone: FUNKY