Tom Jolliffe celebrates the career of the late Alan Parker, one of the finest directors to come out of Britain…
It was saddening to hear of Alan Parker’s passing. He was a director with a number of iconic and essential cinematic works on his CV. In fact it’s a CV littered with so much quality film work, that it’s a wonder Parker hasn’t been appreciated as much as he should have been. This is a director who has covered an array of hard hitting and emotionally investing (sometimes gruelling) themes. Even in his ‘lighter’ work there was grounding in the harsh realities of life.
Parker’s first breakout was the enjoyable crime comedy, Bugsy Malone. With an all adolescent cast (notably including Scott Biao and Jodie Foster), it had all the classic gangster film hallmarks, replacing the violence with comedy and whimsical ideas (replace bullets with guns that splurge cream on its victim). Among the childlike fun and frolics, and wry send up of the genre, there was also an underlying maturity that went beyond the family films of the time. Disney this was not, but it remains a colourful and effortlessly enjoyable film with a likeable and talented cast. Midnight Express came next and was a different beast entirely. Based on a true story, an American student is caught smuggling drugs and thrown into a Turkish prison. Parker wasn’t about to water down the story. Midnight Express is a classic example of 70’s era cinema. It’s dark, pessimistic, but dramatically enthralling and Parker’s grip on this harrowing story is sure handed. Whilst the film caused a deal of controversy initially, Parker caught the eye as an upcoming director to watch.
His next film would mark perhaps his most iconic. The images associated with Fame are of big music numbers, high camp and a kind of joyous energy. There may well be all of that, and it also has a lot of iconic status from its associated with Irene Cara’s hit soundtrack song, ‘What a feeling.’ The film would spawn into a TV show as well, but the original film covered a lot of prescient issues and was a complex look at the struggles of youth. We deal in class struggles, race, sexuality and sexual exploitation. There are sensitive themes and dark topics that Parker doesn’t shy away from, and he dealt with these with a sensitivity not always evident of the time. It’s now 40 years old, but it remains quite relatable for many people for a variety of reasons. When I first saw Fame my expectation was for a pure feel good movie. It portrays a lot of hope and rebellious spirit, but what surprised me (and an aspect I don’t think the film, nor Parker’s handling of, gets enough credit for) was how hard hitting it could be in places, particularly in showing Irene Cara’s character being exploited for simple immature naivety. These students are chasing fame, wanting to break out from the drudgery of the reality adult life has in store for them and someone offers her the promise of greatness, but at a price. It was more than a passing microscope on the entertainment industry and Fame shone a light on that exploitation some 40 years ago.
Parker’s output in the 80’s was a mix of fortunes. Films often greeted with critical admiration, if occasionally disappointing numbers. He had Shoot The Moon with Diane Keaton and Birdy with Matthew Modine and Nic Cage (major breakout roles for both as leading men). In 1987 came one of his most interesting works. It took a while to connect with an audience. A strange thriller with spiritual undertones and featuring Mickey Rourke during the height of his rise in the 80’s. At this point Rourke was seen as a potential new great to follow the footsteps of Pacino, De Niro etc. Ironically Rourke would be working opposite De Niro, who plays a dark and mysterious character who might just be the devil. It didn’t light up the box office, deemed something of a flop considering the acting pedigree, but this odd psychological thriller with a P.I chasing his own tail (in more ways than one) didn’t seem to connect. It’s difficult to place, but it’s also what made it inherently interestingly and ultimately, why it’s now a cult classic. It’s probably my favourite Parker film, it’s great looking and Rourke is exceptional.
He followed Angel Heart with Mississippi Burning, which saw two generationally different Detectives in the 1960’s investigating the disappearance of two prominent civil rights activists. The film would be his most impacting, emotionally draining and gripping film since Midnight Express. It took a look back at a period of time, a cultural and societal turning point, but with the idea that all that was being fought for was still prescient in 1988 when the film was made. We’re still seeing some of this now, but Parker didn’t shy away from telling a fictional tale that was rooted in truth (past and present). Like most of Parker’s work at his raw, emotional best, it can be hard to watch but it’s beautifully shot and features three exceptional performances from Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand. It was one of the most powerful dramas of the decade. Gripping stuff and delivered with the kind of potency only a true cinematic master could achieve.
There was a sense perhaps that Parker had topped out. That’d he’d played his ace in the pack with Mississippi Burning. An acclaimed drama, financial success and a hit during award season (an Oscar win for cinematography and some nominations including Parker himself). Come See The Paradise followed, greeting fairly warmly by critics but almost entirely ignored by audiences, this tale of interracial doomed romance during Pearl Harbour (starring Dennis Quaid and Tamlyn Tomita) just didn’t take off. It’s pretty underrated as such. Far from his best work, lacking quite his usual assurance but Tomita is superb and it’s still an emotional ride.
For fans of essential Irish cinema, Parker’s next film would become iconic in Britain. It was one of the sleeper hits of the year, proving hugely popular. Based on a Roddy Doyle novel, the film, with Parker’s atypical gift for blending heart, humour and salient drama, really struck a chord. It travelled reasonably well in the states too, but not to the degree of some of Parker’s earlier work. It marks his last great film, full of Irish charm, an excellent soundtrack and magnetic performances. Parker still had an iconic work left in him, that being the Madonna lead musical adaptation, Evita. It can be a difficult thing translating Broadway musicals to screen. The film had a mixed reception and Madonna’s casting was somewhat contentious, though she received plenty of acclaim in the end.
Parker began to wind down. Angela’s Ashes was greeted with a mixed response from critics, though struck a chord with audiences (not a particularly financial strike though). In 2003, Parker made The Life of David Gale (his final film). He was working with Kevin Spacey at the height of his movie popularity, as well as Kate Winslet in the midst of a hot streak. The film was destined to succeed? As is the way in film, it didn’t. The box office numbers were poor and critics savaged it. Despite this, it seems to have gained popularity among audiences over time, despite some of the convoluted plotting, and has a good rating on IMDB. Whether the initial disappointment affected Parker’s passion for film-making is unclear, but he never particularly seemed close to making another film (officially retiring in 2016). Still, at the height of his career, he was a director gifted with the ability to tell interesting stories with the complex contradictions of human emotion. At his very best, he had a masterful hand.
What is your favourite Alan Parker film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.