Alan Parker, Director of ‘Bugsy Malone,’ ‘Midnight Express,’ Dies at 76

Carmel Dagan
Alan Parker, Director of ‘Bugsy Malone,’ ‘Midnight Express,’ Dies at 76

Alan Parker, the British director whose exceptionally wide-ranging oeuvre ranged from “Bugsy Malone” to “Evita,” from “Midnight Express” to “The Road to Wellville,” has died. He was 76.

The British Film Institute confirmed Parker’s death on Friday, noting he died after a long illness.

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Parker was twice Oscar-nominated for best director, for 1978’s “Midnight Express” and for 1988’s ‘Mississippi Burning.” While the director’s subject matter was eclectic, he did return frequently to the musical form: His films “Bugsy Malone,” “Fame,” “Pink Floyd the Wall,” “The Commitments” and “Evita” were all musicals or had strong musical elements in one form or another.

Parker’s first feature film, 1976’s “Bugsy Malone,” made a considerable splash for an audacious concept that worked only because everyone kept a straight face. The film was a Depression-era gangster musical cast entirely with children, the oldest perhaps 15. These included Jodie Foster and Scott Baio. Instead of bullets, the machine guns sprayed whipped cream. The New York Times said: “That custard pies can maim and whipped cream should kill are only two of the ways in which some basic laws of the cinema are cheerfully junked in this wildly uneven but imaginative and stylish satire of 1920’s gangster movies. … which also includes a first-rate musical score and choreography, along with a cast of kids.” “Bugsy Malone” was the first of five Parker films nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or.

However intriguing “Bugsy Malone” proved, it surprised many that the same director could helm a film as powerful as 1978’s “Midnight Express,” the harrowing true-life story of a man, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), sent to a nightmarish Turkish prison for smuggling hash. The film, which competed in Cannes, won the adapted screen Oscar for Oliver Stone and best original score for Giorgio Moroder, and it was nominated for best picture, director, supporting actor (John Hurt) and film editing. Roger Ebert said: “Parker succeeds in making the prison into a full, real, rounded world, a microcosm of human behavior.”

The film had such an impact on the culture that even today a sentence in a Turkish prison is often invoked rhetorically as the worst possible punishment, whether accurate or not.

Next, and very far indeed from “Midnight Express,” was the 1980 film musical “Fame,” the story of the students and teachers at New York’s High School of Performing Arts that won Oscars for original song and score and was nominated for four more. It also spawned the hit title song as well as a TV series, a stage musical and a 2009 film remake.

Again changing tone radically, Parker next directed the 1982 Bo Goldman-scripted film “Shoot the Moon,” about the disintegrating marriage of a couple played by Albert Finney and Diane Keaton. Finney’s successful writer and Keaton’s earth-mother live in a farmhouse in Marin County with their four small daughters. “Shoot the Moon” also competed at the Cannes Film Festival.

Also in 1982, Parker saw the release of “Pink Floyd the Wall,” which was not a concert film. Variety said the $12 million production is “an eye-popping dramatization of an audio storyline. Being a visual translation of a so-called ‘concept’ album, pic works extremely well in carrying over the somber tone of the LP.”

“Birdy” (1984), starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, followed two friends who return from the Vietnam War. Birdy, played by Matthew Modine, has always been obsessed with birds and flight, but is mentally unstable after the war and in a seemingly birdlike state, while his friend Al (Cage), who returns from the war with grievous injuries, spends their time together in a veterans hospital attempting to coax Birdy from his regressive state. Flashbacks depict their relatively normal friendship prior to the war.  “Birdy” landed the Cannes Grand Jury Prize in 1985.

“Angel Heart” (1987), a highly effective, atmospheric horror mystery film starring Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet and Robert De Niro, concerned a New York private detective (Rourke) hired by a mysterious De Niro, who plunges him into a case that leads Rourke’s detective to the eventual realization that the missing singer he is seeking is in fact himself — and that he has quite literally sold his soul to the devil.

Parker followed “Angel Heart” with “Mississippi Burning,” about two FBI agents, played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, sent during the 1960s to investigate the murder of civil rights workers to a Southern town where they must somehow pierce the conspiracy of silence. Hackman’s character (a former sheriff) is a pragmatist, while Dafoe’s the idealist. The film won an Oscar for cinematography and was nominated for best picture, director, actor (Hackman), supporting actress (Frances McDormand) as well as sound and film editing.

The director made another issues picture in 1990’s “Come See the Paradise,” which he also wrote. The film explored the injustice done to Japanese Americans at the beginning of World War II, when they were forcibly interned in camps. Starring Dennis Quaid and Tamyln Tomita, “Come See the Paradise” again competed at Cannes.

Very different indeed was his next film, “The Commitments,” based on the novel by Irishman Roddy Doyle. Nominated for an Oscar for best editing, the film concerned a band whose members are drawn from the poorest quarters of North Dublin who decide they’ll play soul music. Roger Ebert called it “a loud, rollicking, comic extravaganza” in which the director “introduces a Dickensian gallery of characters, throws them all into the pot, keeps them talking, and makes them sing a lot.” The film’s appeal was simple, but its fans were very enthusiastic.

“The Road to Wellville” (1994) was also a comedy — a health-care comedy set at the beginning of the 20th century, when mainstream medicine was still primitive and there were therefore all sorts of fellows plying their trade according to one untested theory or another. One such particularly odd duck was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who invented the corn flakes and treated people at a retreat in Battle Creek, Michigan. Down this rabbit hole go a couple played by Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.

Unlike Parker’s other musical projects, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita” was an already existing property, with those who loved or hated it having formed their opinion years before Parker put his hands on the film adaptation. The casting of Madonna in the title role further polarized opinion. The new song Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote for the movie won the Oscar for best song, and the film was Oscar nominated for film editing, sound, cinematography and art direction.

Based on Frank McCourt’s bestselling book recounting his monumentally tragic childhood in Ireland, Parker’s 1999 adaptation of “Angela’s Ashes” was Oscar-nominated for John Williams’ score, but critics felt it fell short as an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winner.

Parker’s last film, “The Live of David Gale,” starring Kevin Spacey, was a thriller that toyed with addressing the issue of capital punishment. Though it played at the Berlin Film Festival, it did not garner the attention of his earlier films.

Alan William Parker was born in Islington, London. He started his professional life in the advertising industry, thriving as a top copywriter at London’s Collet Dickinson Pearce (CDP) ad agency in the 1960s and early ’70s. Parker began his film career through his association with David Puttnam, a fellow ad man also aspiring to make movies who hired Parker to write the screenplay for the preteen romance “Melody” (1971). For a time he directed TV commercials and short films for the BBC, winning a BAFTA TV Award in 1976 best single play for BBC TV movie “The Evacuees” (1975).

The same year Parker made his first movie, “Bugsy Malone,” and never looked back.

In 2013 Parker won a prestigious Academy Fellowship from BAFTA. Receiving numerous nominations over the years, Parker won BAFTAs for the screenplay to “Bugsy Malone,” for direction of “Midnight Express” and for best film and direction for “The Commitments.”

At Poland’s Camerimage, the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography, he shared the cinematographer-director duo award with his lenser Michael Seresin in 2007, and the following year he won a special award for for a “director with unique visual sensitivity.” He was also a founding member of the Directors’ Guild of Great Britain.

Parker was twice married, the first time to Annie Inglis from 1966 until their divorce in 1992.

He is survived by second wife Lisa Moran, who had producing credits on several of Parker’s films; and four children by Inglis, including sons Alexander Parker and Jake Parker, an orchestrator and composer.

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