The problem with kids’ movies is that the people who are making them never actually think like kids. More often than not, they create something that they think kids will like, without ever somehow getting to a kid’s level. The result is the endless cavalcade of movies that seem to talk down to their audience without much of a care as to whether the audience ever notices or not. No wonder why the vast majority of children’s programming is so awful.
Thankfully, Bugsy Malone never had this problem, but the first-time watcher is unlikely to notice, being too busy wondering how such an off-the-wall movie ever got made in the first place. Here’s the basic setup: imagine a musical about Prohibition-era gangsters embroiled in a turf war, only everybody in the movie is a 12 or 13-year old kid acting like they’re adults, and all of the songs are overdubbed by adult singers. The gangsters shoot at each other with “splurge guns” that fire custard pies instead of bullets, all while driving around in pedal-powered cars. I wish I was making this up, but even in my most abinsthe-addled stupor I could never have come up with a movie concept as strange as this one, let along sought to make it. That the movie exists at all is a minor miracle. It’s not that they don’t make movies like this anymore. They never made movies like this. But they made this one, and man, am I glad.
The story is about how rival gang bosses Dandy Dan and Fat Sam are locked in a battle for bootlegging supremacy, but when Dandy Dan shows up with a bunch of splurge guns and starts wiping out Fat Sam’s crew, Fat Sam turns to Bugsy Malone, a wandering troubleshooter who helps out his pals in a pinch. Malone is played by Scott Baio in his film debut (the dude peaked early) who plays opposite a 13 year-old Jodie Foster fresh off the set from Taxi Driver. She plays a vampy temptress that, after her turn as a teenaged hooker, must have come as a softball of a role.
There are a bunch of song and dance numbers (written by the immortal Paul Williams), a few gangland hits, a heist of splurge guns, a car chase or two, and an honest-to-goodness pie fight finale that destroys the entire set in about 30 seconds flat. The final number, “You Give a Little Love,” is my moment of truth in Bugsy Malone, because it’s just such a catchy song, and it makes a convincing case that maybe if we settled our differences with pie fights instead of bullets, more outcomes would be in laughter instead of tears.
This movie isn’t for everybody. How could it be? But for me, this movie was something I’d never forget. And not just because I’ve seen it a zillion times, but because as I grew older and realized just how wonky this thing was, it had to be made by a bunch of people who either didn’t care, or were too naive to know that what they were building was somehow against the rules. And that is why I love this movie so much, really. Any time you’re writing, you tread that line between the familiar and the unknown—anything truly original will never find an audience because folks won’t have any frame of reference for it. Make something too familiar and it’s a knock off of something. So the challenge is to be as original as you can without going into some strange territory where the whole thing is so unexpected people might just tilt their heads at it like confused puppies.
With that comes a horribly, ossifying fear that the huge amount of work that is required of a creative project might all be for nothing if the audience decides to ignore it in droves. That’s why Hollywood remakes movies unnecessarily and churns out formulaic nonsense and sequels all year long. It’s not great or even good, but it’s dependable, and the suits calling the shots don’t want to gamble. They want to rake it in. So they go for what they know will sell. How somebody didn’t deep-six Bugsy Malone when it was pitched will remains one of the greatest examples in Hollywood history that, when everything lines up just right, something really new and different can get made, find an audience and make an impact.
An interesting side note to all of this is that Bugsy Malone is the only children’s movie Alan Parker has made. The thing came about a bit like how J.R.R. Tolkien came up with The Hobbit. On long car trips, Parker would tell stories to amuse his kids, who would demand that the characters are their age. Parker spun a yarn about gangland America that was informed by movies he’d seen on the subject (he hadn’t really been to America, see) and the idea for Bugsy Malone developed from that. Previously, he’d been making advertising spots and was good enough at it that he helped to self-finance this movie. Ultimately, he went on to direct many more films, most of which—Midnight Express, Fame, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Angel Heart, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, Evita and more—are not kid-friendly, to say the least. But I have to give credit to a creator whose mind tends to darker material, but when his kids asked for a story, he gave them one worth having. Boy, did he ever.