“The films that I do tend to polarise people’s views.”
By bringing to the world of cinema extraordinarily diverse films starting from Bugsy Malone to Midnight Express, Sir Alan Parker’s transcendental masterstrokes are a result of his creative genius. An English filmmaker with truckloads of awards and accolades to his name, including six Academy Awards, nineteens BAFTAs and ten Golden Globes, Parker was credited for taking British cinema to new, unthinkable heights with his films that defied the boundaries of genre.
His oeuvre was a result of European sensibility mingled with socio-political awareness which made him produce such wondrous pieces of art. His creativity and imagination knew no bounds; often referred to with various titles such as “natural storyteller” or “aesthetic fascist”, Parker was a rare cinematic gem, one of his kind, and the world of cinema owes Sir Parker for his brilliant contribution till the very end of his life.
Born to working-class parents in Islington, London, on February 14, 1944, Parker forever remained “defiantly working-class” despite ascending the ladder of fame and success into the posh and affluence of Hollywood. Parker was never exposed to the world of cinema by his family who, in reality, remained relatively ignorant of the art of film. His earliest introduction to anything related to cameras and movies would be his passion for photography inspired by his uncles. He was a bright student and often felt like he was overworking himself and not having as much fun as he should. Having concentrated on science in his last year at school, he left at eighteen to take a job at an advertising company hoping to impress girls.
Parker started as an office boy, but his passion for writing essays and advertisements won support and encouragement from his colleagues and soon made him earn the position of a copywriter. It was during his work at one of these several agencies he worked for that he met future collaborators David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, the former of whom has been credited for motivating Parker to write his script for Melody. He established an advertising company with Alan Marshall where their extremely creative and unique commercials won numerous awards and accolades. Parker had always been vocal about the lack of a British film industry when he started and how directors like him, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and others had no choice but to opt for working in commercials which “proved to be incredibly important”.
Parker’s directorial debut would be his 1973 fictional film No Hard Feelings which documented a disheartening love story unfolding with the English Blitz during the Second World War as its backdrop. Having been born during such raids, he was extremely passionate about the topic. Parker’s lack of directorial experience compelled him to risk his own finances and mortgage his house to cover the film production cost. Fortunately, BBC adored the film and aired it in 1976. Meanwhile, they also signed in Parker to direct The Evacuees which was focusing on the mass evacuation of school-goers from central Manchester towards safety during the Second World War; it won a BAFTA as well as an Emmy.
Parker’s debut full-length feature film in 1976 was Bugsy Malone which led him to cement his legacy in the film industry. His unique sense and concept as well as stylised content that parodied American gangster films and musicals, including children as the main characters, won the hearts and interest if the audience. The film was extremely successful and won eight nominations at the British Academy Awards as well as five Awards which included two BAFTAs for Jodie Foster’s wonderful performance.
Despite his success, the director never wanted to be pigeonholed into one particular genre. He loved playing and experimenting, which opened brand new avenues for him. When asked in an interview about his varied gene-defying filmography, he simply acknowledged with a laugh that while it surprised his wife as well, he would continue doing it simply “because I can”. While he keeps emphasising that either he is “incredibly multi-talented” or lacks any “focus whatsoever”, it is most likely the former.
Following the success of his 1978 film Midnight Express, a film which also piqued quite a bit of controversy due to the vicious portrayal of Turkish prison men, he won the film an Academy Award for the screenplay by Oliver Stone and also broadened the director’s spectrum. As a “front rank director”, he had the liberty of directing films that resonated with him. Thus began an era of extraordinary success for Parker who went on to direct some fantastic features including blockbusters like Fame, Shoot the Moon, Pink Floyd- The Wall, Birdy Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, Evita, Angela’s Ashes and the underrated The Life of David Gale. Parker’s film topics had always been close to his heart, inspiring him as well as drawing inspiration from the events that he was exposed to. His follow-up films would always be in direct contrast to the previous and thus reeked of his innate talent and love for the craft and skill as well as the natural storytelling skills that enabled him to direct one masterpiece after another.
The Life of David Gale was his last film after which he took a lifelong hiatus. While he was actively involved with the industry as a lead representative of FERA among other important titles, he indulged in his hobby; painting. Having made films for such a long time with vast production teams, he was happy to have found solace in such a solo creative outlet at a later stage in life.
Inspired by Fred Zinnemann, Parker believed what the incredible veteran said about how “making a film was a great privilege” and one “should never waste it”. Passionate about his craft, he believed that if one did not have something to say they should never become a filmmaker. He was very conscious of his position in the world of films as a director. He championed the cause of cinematographers and the like who get pushed into the shadows, overwhelmed by a director’s overbearing presence in films. He always voiced his opinion regarding how a director becomes an auteur due to constant support from his crew, especially the cinematographers. “I always argued against the auteur theory; films are a collaborative art form.”
Sir Parker also spoke passionately about how he hated begging for money to make a film and how he found the process “debilitating”. Unsolicited advice from studio followed by various changes in the script, according to him, was “the kiss of death for original filmmaking”. He always commented on the downside of the cinematic world, emphasising how Hollywood robbed filmmakers of their dream projects, stripping their sensibilities bare. While studios are also generally quite encouraging, the ability to make autonomous decisions on the part of the director is bleak and redundant.
Sir Alan Parker passed away in July 2020, after suffering from a lengthy illness, at the age of 76. He lived a fulfilled life and is remembered fondly due to the spectacular legacy he has left behind in the world of cinema. On what would be this visionary director’s 77th birthday today, we decided to journey through six definitive films directed by Sir Alan Parker which was a product of his creative genius and would help better our understanding of his genre-defying directorial pursuits.
Here are six definitive films by Sir Alan Parker that one must watch to appreciate his works of art.
“A lot of directors prefer the solitude of the editing process, but I revel in the craziness of what a film set is.”
Sir Alan Parker’s 6 definitive films:
6. Bugsy Malone (1976)
Alan Parker’s directorial debut was this joyous film Bugsy Malone which was meant to entertain children and adults alike. It rose from his awareness that all children get to watch are Disney films. It was also a satirical commentary on American gangster films and musicals in the garb of comedy and won numerous accolades. Terrific performances coupled with a unique and charming execution makes his first film a must-watch for all.
Set in the Prohibition era, the film reflects the exploits of Al Capone and Bugs Moran while parodying them. The machine guns fire whipped cream instead of bullets and once a kid is splurged, they are all “washed up” and “finished”. The film sees ‘Fat Sam’ and ‘Dandy Dan’ vying for power while the gutsy ‘Bugsy Malone’ rises to prominence.
“Okay fellas, this is our moment. Keep a cool head and keep those fingers pumpin’, ’cause remember, it’s history you’ll be writin’.”
5. Angel Heart (1987)
Starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro, the film sees a private detective named Harry Angel being contacted by a stranger named Louis Cyphre who demands the iconic singer Johnny Favorite to be tracked down. As soon as Angel starts interrogating after Favorite, the interviewees start dying tragic deaths quite mysteriously. Angel soon finds out that Favorite is a dabbler of the dark arts and that Cyphre had an ulterior motive in contacting Angel.
While the film received a lot of flak for casting Lisa Bonet who was a part of the controversial The Cosby Show, it is an underappreciated film by Parker. While the director originally wanted DeNiro as Angel, the latter went on to star as the mysterious Cyphre while Mickey Rourke secured the part. Parker made quite a few changes to William Hjortsberg’s novel Fallen Angels and masterfully blended the elements of neo-noir with horror and psychological thriller disguised as a detective flick.
“You’ve been living on borrowed time in another man’s memories.”
4. Fame (1980)
Alan Parker tweaks a touchy and showy subject to give it a darker and more realistic look. To gain a spot at the coveted New York High School of Performing Arts, young students indulge in cutthroat competition. They realise that the glitter of the industry hides the amount of hard work and perseverance required to make the cut, often leaving them at difficult crossroads. While dealing with heavyweight issues such as abortion, illiteracy, sexual orientation, harassment and abortion, they must face love, rejection and loss while struggling to be the absolute best.
The film received numerous award nominations, winning two Academy Awards as well as a Golden Globe. The students are in a constant state of frenzy and the film upholds a very realistic side of the showbiz where nobody can survive once they slightly slip off. It strips misconceptions about the glamorous show world to bare nakedness and makes one root for the characters who get through the ordeal.
“I’m a professional. A few unkind words aren’t going to bother me. I know it’s not going to be all standing ovations.”
3. Midnight Express (1978)
Based on Bill Hayes’ non-fiction book of the same name, the film documents Hayes’ harrowing experiences in the Turkish prison after he gets arrested for trying to smuggle hashish. He is taken to the prison where he learns that the guards are as vicious as the prisoners and that he cannot trust anyone. He makes various escape attempts and finds himself embroiled in brutal situations and predicaments where he is either tortured mercilessly or even almost raped.
Powerful and terrifying, the film evokes sympathy in the hearts of the viewers for Hayes who has to endure relentless torture in the prison. While the film has been criticised for promoting anti-Turkish sentiments and near-xenophobia while receiving backlash from the author for having deviated from the original text, it remains one of Parker’s best works; its sombre and horrifying atmosphere is in direct contrast to his previous work’s joyous tone.
“Jesus Christ forgave the bastards, but I can’t!
2. Birdy (1984)
Birdy returns to his working-class neighbourhood in 1960s Philadelphia bearing horrific and scarring memories of the Vietnam War. Traumatised by the scathing violence, he is totally disengaged from reality and is obsessed with imagining himself as an actual bird. His parents are at a loss and he is soon confined at a hospital where the doctors are befuddled and do not know how to cure him. His high school best friend Al, who was also in Vietnam, is determined to save his buddy and visits Birdy every day and understand him by having shared experiences.
Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage were a part of this extremely enchanting and poetic film. They had undergone rigorous training to reflect the trauma of war-ridden veterans. Cage, in particular, was “terrified” of his role as it was in contrast with whatever roles he had played earlier. According to him, it was a “once-in-a-lifetime part and deserved” all the pain he underwent by losing 15 pounds and having a pair of his front teeth pulled out.
“Maybe life is shitty. It is shitty. I’ll tell you something. I’m not trying to pin life anymore. I don’t even fucking understand it. I just want to make it through with some dignity, like everybody else.”
1. Mississippi Burning (1988)
In a 1964 Jessup County in Mississippi, three civil rights workers of whom two are Jewish and one is black, go missing and are later found dead. To investigate the matters, FBI investigators Alan Ward and Rupert Anderson are sent in. However, they are refused cooperation by the local authorities who are under the direct influence of the deadly Ku Klax Klan. The African American community remains tight-lipped due to their intense fear of getting lynched. The two agents clash over strategies before devising a master plan to incriminate the ones responsible for the murders. However, the climate grows even more hostile and thus they resort to aggressive and cunning tactics to get to the bottom of this vicious and brutal homicide caused by racism and oppression.
Starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, the film saw Parker clashing with the screenwriter before tweaking the script to his own liking. The film was realistic and angry in its truest sense and won seven Oscar nominations, winning the Academy Award ultimately for Best Cinematography. With exemplary performances and violent, scathing truths being put on display, the film serves the hard-hitting truth fresh and hot right in the viewer’s face and they cannot afford to look away.
“Yeah, I do. You know, it’s [playing baseball] the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.”