Nearly every remembrance of British filmmaker Alan Parker, who died last Friday at the age of seventy-six, emphasizes the eclectic range of the fourteen features he made over the course of twenty-eight years. The oeuvre that ultimately garnered ten Oscars, ten Golden Globes, and nineteen BAFTA awards encompasses sprightly musicals, wrenching family dramas, and gripping political thrillers. What binds them all, though, are Parker’s plain-as-day moral convictions, stories driven hard by characters with clear-cut goals, and a penchant for sleek, dynamic compositions rooted in Parker’s years as a director of hundreds of television commercials.
Seven years ago, when he received a BAFTA fellowship, the lifetime achievement award presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Parker was putting the finishing touches on what turned out to be a pretty impressive website. There, he writes about growing up “in a block of flats in a working class part of Islington, North London, where the German bombs had flattened many of the cinemas during the Second World War. Curiously, this devastation was quite wonderful for a small boy growing up amongst the post-war debris,” and “the burned out, crumbling churches, houses, and factories became our own private Disneyland.”
In the early 1960s, he landed a job as an office boy in an advertising agency, and within a few years, he was writing copy. By the late ’60s, he’d met David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, who would later produce several of his films, and along with Ridley and Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, and Adrian Lyne, he’d become one of the directors who were making the British advertising industry one of the hottest in the world. Parker “shared a number of defining visual traits with his British-advert brethren, like a love of fog, diffuse light, and artfully shot grime,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. As the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw points out, advertising is “a no-nonsense world where there was no navel-gazing about art: if the product didn’t sell then your ideas were lacking, your craftsmanship was at fault, and you hadn’t done your job.” Parker “made no apologies for carrying over that spirit into his films, which were made for moviegoers, not critics.”
In 1973, Parker mortgaged his house to finance his first feature, No Hard Feelings, a love story set in London during the war, and the BBC not only picked it up but also hired him to direct another WWII story, The Evacuees (1975). Parker’s first theatrical feature headed straight for the competition in Cannes. Bugsy Malone (1976), a playful ode to the American cinema of the 1930s, combines gangster warfare, song and dance numbers, and slapstick pie fights, and of course, the entire cast, led by Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, is made up exclusively of child actors. Talking to the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver in 2013, Parker freely admitted that Bugsy was an attempt to “do something American. I’d written several scripts, but everything came back with a rubber stamp saying ‘too parochial.’ I’d done a ton of commercials with kids, so I knew I was good with them. It’s a ludicrous idea that really ought not to work. It’s the sort of thing you would never do later in your career because you would realize how hard it was. We were so naive. But it’s lasted the test of time; it looks very modern.”
Parker returned to the musical more often than to any other genre. When we think of Fame (1980), the first scene to come to mind is the boisterous dance sequence that has a diverse cast of High School of Performing Arts students spilling out into the streets of New York, but the film also has its dark shades of adolescent drama. Parker rarely let pass an opportunity to note that making Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) was “one of the most miserable experiences of my creative life,” but he had an absolute blast making The Commitments (1991), an adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel about an ad hoc group of working-class Dubliners who bring soul music to the Irish capital.
Parker’s most conventional—and expensive—musical was Evita (1996), based on the concept album and musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and starring Madonna as Eva Perón. “She really worked hard on that film,” Parker told Michael Parkinson in 2003, “and whatever people think about her as an actor—it’s very easy to be snidey, as the British are, of course—but she’s pretty great in the movie . . . If you ask the make-up, and the hair, and the first assistant directors, they might have a few other things to say about her. But she was very nice to me.”
Parker cowrote the screenplay for Evita with Oliver Stone, with whom he’d first worked on Midnight Express (1978). After Bugsy Malone, Parker was looking for something with a little more bite in it, and Stone’s screenplay, based on Billy Hayes’s account of being arrested in Turkey for trying to smuggle hash out of the country and then spending five hellish years in prison fit the bill. But even Hayes thought that Stone and Parker’s depiction of the Turkish authorities and wardens as evil and corrupt sadists was over the top, and some audiences found the gory violence difficult to stomach. In 2012, Jeffrey Ressner asked Parker to break down a fight sequence for DGA Quarterly. “When I saw this scene for the first time with a paying audience, I remember a woman ran out and vomited in the lobby because she was so appalled,” Parker recalled. “What flickers up there on a screen for us as filmmakers is an illusion, a thousand shots with fifty thousand Scotch tape joins. The effect on audiences is something else—to them, it’s real.”
Angel Heart (1987) was another descent into an allegorical hell, this one initially rated X before Parker agreed to cut ten seconds from a sex scene. Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel, a New York detective who travels to New Orleans in 1955 to track down a missing singer. He’s been hired by a mysterious man with a not-so-mysterious name, Louis Cyphre, played with a delectable chill by Robert De Niro. “I will always remember the scenes I did with De Niro and Mickey Rourke, from a directorial point of view, because I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it,” Parker told Sven Mikulec in 2016. “The electricity of the two of them working together, the danger of the two of them, and the way in which a scene could be fantastic, and the way in which a scene could also be terrible if they were allowed to go off the rails. They would start to improvise, the two of them, always in these scenes, and you suddenly think, this has nothing to do with what I’ve written, so you got to drag them back to what it is. It was a great experience.”
In Birdy (1984), an adaption of William Wharton’s novel, Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage play two friends helping each other cope with the psychological damage wrought by their experiences in the Vietnam War. “That sounds like a million other movies,” writes Jason Bailey in the New York Times, “but Birdy is uniquely itself, burrowing into the world of gonzo fantasy and unexpected beauty these two friends create to escape their considerable trauma. It’s a film that could’ve gone wrong in a million ways—too mawkish, too sentimental, too silly—and Parker never takes a false step.”
Of all of Parker’s films, the clear favorite for both Peter Bradshaw and Owen Gleiberman is Shoot the Moon (1982), which features outstanding performances from Albert Finney and Diane Keaton as a separated couple whose emotional warfare wrecks havoc on the lives of their four young daughters. “To this day, the film touches nerves about what the end of a marriage is really about that virtually no film has approached since,” writes Gleiberman.
In Parker’s most controversial film, Mississippi Burning (1988), Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play FBI agents investigating the 1964 murders of three civil rights leaders. A modest hit nominated for seven Oscars, the film was at first met with mixed reviews before coming in for far more severe criticism from Black community leaders for its white savior narrative. The Life of David Gale (2003), an anti-death-penalty screed, was panned across the board—and it was the last feature Parker made. He carried on writing screenplays for projects that were never realized, and in his later years, turned to what he called his “first love,” painting.
In his conversation with Andrew Pulver, though, Parker did admit that he missed the comradery of filmmaking. “I always argued against the auteur theory; films are a collaborative art form,” he said. “I’ve had some fantastically good people help me make the movies. I get annoyed when I see some directors wanting too much credit. On the other hand, all films are hard to make; you leave a bit of yourself behind up there on the screen. There is an identity to my films, which is as much mine as anyone else’s, and I’m pleased with that.”
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