Retro Review: BUGSY MALONE (1976)

It's 1929. A vicious mob war is tearing the city apart. One man is caught in the middle. And no one has hit puberty yet.

One of the best things about Fantastic Fest last year was seeing singular films - movies so unique that, for better or worse, they have no contextual peers with which to compare them. Holy Motors. I Declare War. Wrong. I've never seen anything like these movies. As viewers (and reviewers), we try to shove these movies into something resembling a category. We say things like  "it's like Film A meets Film B" or "It's as if (insert iconic director) made a (juxtapose genre here) while on (insert humorous hallucinogenic here)" in an attempt to convey just what the eff it is we watched. It's a handy shortcut, but it's reductive as hell.  So when I tell you that Bugsy Malone is "like Miller's Crossing crossed with The Muppet Movie, with a dash of Streets of Fire," that might intrigue you, but it's also an admission that I'm failing the film and I'm failing the reader.

I mean, those elements are there: Bugsy Malone is a gangland musical about 1920s New York, following a fast-talking hustler caught in the middle of a mob war. The songs are by Paul Williams, the '70s icon who provided the music for both The Muppet Movie and Phantom of the Paradise. And, like Streets of Fire, it takes place in a sort of imaginary world. But an easy "this meets that" description doesn't really cover this movie. Made in 1976, the anachronistic endeavor feels like a throwback to the kind of escapism Hollywood once made for a nation dealing with the Great Depression and a war, one of those all-singing, all-dancing old-school entertainments meant to transport you. But what pushes Bugsy Malone into that realm of the singular is that the entire cast - the leading man, the mustachioed mobsters, the gun molls and dancing girls - are all played by children.

It's a genuinely bizarre thing to behold: little kids conducting mob hits on each other (albeit using "splurge guns," tommy guns which splat out white custard at their victims), soup kitchens filled with child hobos, 12 year-old Jodie Foster just covered in make-up and inviting the title character to "come over here and smear my lipstick." It'd be easy to say there's no way this film could be made today, but that statement would have been just as true in 1976, right up until this film somehow got made. Alan Parker, making his feature debut, hatched the idea with his own kids and somehow pulls it off, prepubescent mob violence and all. The first thirty minutes are carried along on the sheer shock value of seeing such a handsome, professional production peopled with what look like The Little Rascals. It's a little draggy in the middle; the plot comes and goes to allow for the song and dance numbers. But it's those musical numbers where Bugsy Malone truly launches into WTF territory. (I should mention here that when the kids break into song, adult voices come out of their mouths.)

A friend online said the glammed-up showgirls make things a little uncomfortable, but to me the absence of adults makes whole thing feel more like innocent playacting, a world so unreal that those concerns seem a million miles away. Contrasted with Jodie Foster's sexualized role in Taxi Driver (another 1976 release, filmed just before this one), the issue is defused to some degree. The film is beautifully photographed by acclaimed cinematographers Peter Biziou and Michael Seresin, awash in that dreamy '70s haze you don't see anymore. First-time production designer Geoffrey Kirkland (and check out his ensuing career) creates a flawless, if imaginary, world for the characters. Some things are to scale, some aren't; it's to the film's credit that you kind of don't notice (give or take the little pedal cars the gangsters tool around in). The kids are all great fun to watch, and are at least as talented as Streets of Fire's Michael Paré, but apparently only four of them ever went on to do anything else. The kid in this clip, has actually had a great film career, and has turned up in a few Matthew Vaughn films:

Bugsy Malone ran semi-regularly on TV in the States about 30 years ago, but is mostly forgotten in America today. In the UK, however, it's a genuine cult classic - DVDs, soundtrack, sheet music - all available on Amazon. And perhaps unsurprisingly, a quick perusal of YouTube shows that it's become a popular production for school drama departments. Fans of the truly unique will want to see this one; I bought the UK Blu-ray and it plays fine in New Jersey.  Please, no one show it to the producers of Glee.