R.I.P. Alan Parker

by Ray Schillaci
The Movie Guys

Sir Alan Parker made his exit on July 31st 2020. He was more than a filmmaker extraordinaire. The gentleman was knighted in 2014 for services to business, charitable giving and philanthropy. Although some did not consider him an auteur director, there was no denying that everyone of his films bore his proud signature with stories that moved us, entertained, and many times demanded us to reflect: Midnight Express, Fame, Shoot the Moon, Mississippi Burning and The Commitments to name just a few.

Born in Islington, North London, the man came from a working class family. Those roots never left his heart and mind, he displayed them beautifully for many years on celluloid much to his audience’s pleasure. Before he became a filmmaker, Parker started his mastery of the image in his late teens in television advertising for over ten years.

He eventually made two shorts and a TV movie before he was handed his first gig as a filmmaker. The film was an immediate challenge that could easily discourage many artists. With less than favorable reviews and a box-office bomb, Parker persevered two years later and rose like a phoenix from the ashes…

1978, Westwood, California was the place for young people to hang out. It wasn’t just because a popular college campus, UCLA, was nestled in the midst of it. It was not just the dining experiences offered. This was an arena for young street vendors, performers, scientologists, Hare Krishna and the hub for movie premieres. That year, the film that caught the attention of so many young people was Midnight Express. My friends and I knew little about it. We were just told that we had to see it, and it would be an experience we would never forget.

They were right. Within the first 10 minutes we were shaken to the core, and as the film unfolded we kept uttering to ourselves, My God, did this really happen? From the dynamic performances of Brad Davis and John Hurt to the haunting music of Giorgio Moroder, the true story about a college student attempting to smuggle drugs out of Turkey and thrown in prison with a sentence that seemed like an eternity was riveting.

The shocking thing was that we all took it as if the young man just did something stupid. It was only his first offense, and his last that would have him endure the brutality of a Turkish prison. The film left us sweaty with exhausted as it did with many in the audience and brought to the forefront a director, Alan Parker, whose imagery conjured powerful emotions and had an uncanny way with a story that made you live it while in the safety of a darkened theater.

It was hard to believe that two years earlier, Parker had delighted a smaller audience with his musical gangster film Bugsy Malone that consisted of only children including a very young Scott Baio and Jodie Foster. It was totally original and never given a real chance to find its audience. Cream pies were substituted for bullets, kids singing with dubbed adult voices, the script was kitschy fun, but it also went over so many people’s heads. The studio had no idea how to market it, and it was decided it would be placed as a second bill with the more successful The Bad News Bears.

Parker proved in those two films that not only was he a chameleon of cinema, but a fabulous story teller with a true original voice. Two years later, that voice returned to a very different musical that would rock the cinema world. Fame became the song and movie that would have people lining up for hours to catch it a second or third time around. The story of a group of unrelated teenagers attending a New York high school for gifted students of the performing arts touched a nerve with moviegoing audiences like very few films ever did. Parker did it with his signature lens, genuinely great new talent, musical numbers that would be long remembered, and an incredible rousing climax that would leave audiences cheering.

Alan Parker did not appear to be someone who was obsessed with box-office results. His films seemed to come from his gut and heart. He was fearless in choosing his projects, and they were not always pleasant. His follow up to Fame was a very introspective look into the decimation of a marriage. Shoot the Moon had Albert Finney and Diane Keaton pull no punches in this devastatingly hurtful tale of cheating couples, the pain of separation, divorce and the torment children endure throughout the battle of their parents.

Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in another Alan Parker film

Parker just about achieved everything he wanted in the film. It was uncomfortable, exhausting and relentless to watch. He captured the raw nerve that the messiest of divorces exposes, and it was far from a box-office success. Critics were divided, but it still received accolades from Cannes, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, Writers Guild of America, New York and National Society of Film Critics.

From there, Parker took on an even darker subject, Roger Waters’ Pink Floyd: The Wall. Here was a downer of a musical fantasy and the director didn’t flinch upon giving us one of the most depressing musicals set to film with mental isolation, drug use, fascism, dark sexuality, violence, gore and self destruction. Yet, audiences and critics found it brilliant, especially fans of Pink Floyd. The most amazing outcome was the film was number three in the box-office next to two far more upbeat films, An Officer and a Gentleman and Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

The director would take a lighter more upbeat note on mental disorders with his next film, Birdy starring Nicolas Cage. The story of a young man coming home from Vietnam and obsessing on becoming a bird. Then just as one would think Parker would lighten up, he turned to an even darker tone with his wonderful spin on a film noir horror piece, Angel Heart.

This was a film Parker had so much faith in. It was basically Chinatown crossed with The Exorcist. But, not only was he castigated by the ratings board, critics were mixed and those that did not like it were downright unnecessarily venomous. This was probably due to the mix of satanism, violence and sex with a former Cosby kid, Lisa Bonet. Mickey Rourke was spot-on as the downtrodden gumshoe. He looked and acted as if he came straight out of the 1940s. Parker’s vision of New Orleans was appropriately spooky. It might not have had the build up and shock value of Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but the film did supply an eerie tone that left one unsettled as the house lights came back on in the theater.

Just as some were ready to count the filmmaker out after the disappointment of Angel Heart, Parker returned with a fervor delivering one of his most powerful films that would nab six Academy Award nominations, Mississippi Burning. A haunting look into the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Jessup, Mississippi in 1964 and the two F.B.I. agents with two vastly different styles of handling the situation. This film is as important today as it was the day of its premiere in 1988. It’s Parker firing on all cylinders, the powerful messaging and impact place the film alongside Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Das Boot and Braveheart.

Parker would go on to do the wartime romantic drama Come See the Paradise. The film felt like an Oscar contender, but it would go ignored by the Academy and audiences making it a box office flop. The filmmaker would switch gears and return to his musical comedy side with a dash of drama becoming one of the most rousing and soulful films in many years, The Commitments. Taken from a 1987 novel by Roddy Doyle and using the same writer for the screenplay, Parker unveiled the story of a young Irishman, a music fanatic, who decides to form a “soul band” out of some working class youths.

Maria Doyle Kennedy in The Commitments, an Alan Parker film

From the extremely funny auditions to the endearing forming of the band and how they try to bring soul to the Northside of Dublin, Parker’s film feels extremely personal. We become frustrated, angry and at the same time fall in love with all the members of the band. The ending is appropriately melancholy and leaves the audience begging for more. It is truly one of Alan Parker’s most joyous films.

Parker would go onto to make four more films in ten years including the Broadway musical hit Evita starring Madonna. In 2005, he received an honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Sunderland. In 2013 he was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award “in recognition of outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image.” Which seems to coincide with what he learned from his mentor, the legendary director Fred Zinnemann (A Man For All Seasons, From Here to Eternity, High Noon). Zinnemann told him, making a film is a great privilege, and you should never waste it. Parker lived that credo and displayed it throughout his work much to our pleasure.



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