Blu-ray Review: Trying to Make Sense of BUGSY MALONE

“So, wait, what is this movie?”

“OK, Bugsy Malone is a gangster musical from 1976 directed by Alan Parker, who went on to do Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Fame, Angel Heart, that Evita movie with Madonna, The Commitments-”

The Commitments is the best.”

The Commitments IS the best, you’re goddamn right about that. But Bugsy Malone is pretty darn great too, thanks in large part to the songs written by mega-genius Paul Williams, who you know from his many collaborations with Jim Henson, his work in Phantom of the Paradise, and decades of other brilliant work.”

“But a musical about gangs and gangsters? How could that work?”

“…I mean…there’s Guys and Dolls. And West Side Story.”

“Fair enough. So what is Bugsy Malone about then?”

Bugsy Malone is the story of Bugsy Malone, a sort of man-about-town during Prohibition. Bugsy’s not much of a gangster himself, but is friends with the big movers and shakers of the speakeasies and he’s tangentially involved in gangland stuff. At the same time that Bugsy starts to make some real plays for his own future, he finds himself embroiled in a new turf war between reigning king “Fat” Sam and an upstart by the name of “Dapper” Dan. As the war intensifies and the body count rises, Bugsy has to stay one step ahead of the chaos.”

“Well alright this sounds pretty cool actually.”

“Yeah, and the whole movie stars children.”


“Yeah, the entire ensemble is made up of children.”

“Like, they’re telling the story of this gang war through the eyes of the gangsters’ children, like Road to Perdition? With songs?”

“No, it’s like…you know how the movie Cars is set in a world that’s exactly like ours except all the people are cars?”

“Yeah, and it’s cute at first but then it quickly becomes weird and unsettling if you think about it for too long and the more you do think about it the more horrifying the implications are, and the deeper down the rabbit hole of nonsense logic you tumble.”

“Yes, to watch the movie Cars is to gaze into the eldritch eyes of madness and feel yourself slipping into that tormented world of howling insanity and Bugsy Malone is the same thing except instead of Cars it’s children.”

“But the eye of madness and the howling insanity, that’s all still there?”

“Oh very much so, yes.”

“So is this a comedy then? Like a goofy parody of old gangster movies?”

“Kiiiiiiiiind of, except the humor doesn’t come from ‘kids acting like gangsters’, it comes in the form of screwball banter, played completely earnest, like something out of a Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges movie. But the movie’s story is told totally straight-faced, with Parker and cinematographers Peter Biziou and Michael Seresin shooting everything with this very grim and moody color palette, emphasizing the browns and greys and blacks, heightening the sense that these characters inhabit a decaying, pitiless world where the only escapes are empty hedonism and pointless violence.”

“But with children?”

“But with children, yes. The titular child is played by Scott Baio.”

“Scott Baio sucks.”

“Scott Baio does suck, but whatever he’s like twelve in this movie. More distracting is the presence of Jodie Foster.”

“THAT Jodie Foster?”

“Doing this movie the same year as Taxi Driver! Most of the kids playing dress-up here have the energy of kids playing dress-up, but Foster really does inhabit her character and give a real sense of life to this world. She’s not even in the movie all that much (first billed though!) and she still is the clear MVP. But if nothing else, everyone sure seems to be having a good time dressing up in old-timey outfits and playing at being gangsters.”

“Well, I guess kids singing a bunch of catchy songs by Paul Williams should be cute enough to make up for any inherent weirdness.”

“Um. Well.”

“What? Is it not cute to see kids dressed as gangsters sing and dance?”

“Well, see, the thing is, the kids don’t actually sing the songs. They’re lip-synching, but the voices are adults.”

“What adults did they get to sing these Paul Williams songs?”

“Honestly it’s mostly just Paul Williams.”

“So it’s Paul Williams, an adult man, his voice coming out of multiple children’s mouths?”

“Sometimes simultaneously, yes.”

“And this is all set in a Cars-ian world but with children instead of cars.”




“OK, you mentioned that this is a movie about gangland warfare, and there’s a body count.”

“Yeah the plot is basically a Miller’s Crossing-esque struggle for power between warring crime families, with one independent agent caught in the middle of it.”

“But with children?”

“But with children, yes.”

“OK but so does that mean this is an entire movie, an entire MUSICAL movie, about children murdering each other?”

“Oh good lord no.”

“Oh thank God!”

“I mean they are SHOOTING each other the entire time-”

“For fuck’s sake.”

“-but they’re hitting each other with ‘splurge’ guns. They basically just shooting cream at each other, no different than getting hit with a pie in the face or something like that.”

“Oh, OK, well that’s just nice and cute then. No one’s actually getting hurt.”

“Yeah! Yeah. Well, I mean, when a character gets ‘splurged’ they do disappear from the movie, and everyone acts like they’re gone and never coming back, and sometimes after a kid gets hit they will just lie there motionless.”



“So who is this movie even for?”

“Unclear! And to be honest, it kinda came and went without much fanfare in the United States. Siskel and Ebert both quite enjoyed it, but it pretty much disappeared. But in England, it was not only a hit but is regarded as a total classic. Edgar Wright has frequently listed it as one of his favorite films and not only included multiple shout-outs to it over the course of his TV series Spaced, but directed an entire music video that’s one long homage to the movie. Check it out:

“So is this movie good?”

“Look, Bugsy Malone is an incredibly strange beast. I guess if you string together enough baffling choices and commit HARD to each and every one of them, you end up with SOMETHING. That’s the chain of thinking that gets us disasters like Tom Hooper’s All Uncanny Valley, All The Time rendition of Cats, but it’s also led to innumerable cult oddities that seem to make no sense but achieve a kind of magic. Bugsy Malone has the benefit of featuring those brilliant songs by Paul Williams throughout, so any time your energy starts to flag a new number starts up and you can lose yourself to the crooning, even if you never fully adjust to the cognitive dissonance of adult voices coming out of children’s mouths. Both Parker and Williams would admit in the years after the movie’s release that they were not sure if they made the right decision to feature adult vocals and perhaps the movie would have been better, or at least not as unrelentingly weird, for that. Regardless, Bugsy Malone is a totally unique object, one that doesn’t make sense in any era. Its screwball energy is decades removed from the height of that subgenre, and it’s a big splashy musical from a decade when the conventional wisdom was that the big splashy musical was dead. So if you’re a fan of Williams, Parker, of musicals, and of the oddball misfit creations that sneaked their way into theaters back when this industry wasn’t quite so tamed, Bugsy Malone is a lot of fun. And the new Blu-ray from ‘Paramount Presents’ is really gorgeous, easily the best this movie has ever looked. It maintains the washed out aesthetic of Parker’s world, but with a crispness and clarity I’ve never seen for this title before. It’s a really handsome presentation and I’m very glad to have it. I gotta be honest, though, for as much as I do enjoy the movie I do sometimes fast-forward through the talkier bits, especially the scenes concerning the heated love triangle between the children-playing-adults.”

“The love triangle?”

“Yeah, that’s part of it too.”

“So, wait, what is this movie?”

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