Release Date(s)1976 (August 31, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Paramount Presents – #23)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
For his feature film debut in 1976, the late, great Alan Parker chose to write and direct a gangster musical featuring songs by Paul Williams and a cast consisting entirely of children. That says everything about Parker that you need to know: he was a filmmaker who confidently walked his own path. Bugsy Malone was successful in his native UK, though it didn’t really find an audience in the United States. Yet it quickly established a cult following, one which continues to this day, partly thanks to a stage version with a book written by Parker himself. But it’s the film which remains an idiosyncratic experience, one which few other filmmakers have dared to imitate. The old adage never to work with children or animals exists for a reason, and the youthful cast did result in a logistical nightmare, but Parker managed to pull off a minor miracle in bringing it all together.
The story is an homage to the archetypical gangster films of yore: Fat Sam (John Cassisi) is a mob boss who finds himself in conflict with his rival Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) when the latter uses new weaponry to muscle into Sam’s territory. Low-level mug Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) finds himself drawn into the conflict even though he just wants to romance the ingenue Blousy (Florence Garland), with Sam’s moll Tallulah (Jodie Foster) waiting in the wings. The narrative is standard fare for the genre, but that familiarity was necessary to anchor the quirky reimagining as a children’s musical.
Bugsy Malone is an ambitious and largely successful example of creative world-building, with all of the standard gangster film tropes translated into a childhood milieu—right down to the pedal-powered cars. The songs by Paul Williams are hardly accurate for the period, but they're catchy and they work surprisingly well. What doesn't work is that the singing voices are dubbed by adults, which sounds disconcerting when coming out of the kid’s mouths. It’s a rare example of the film not being true to its concept, and while neither Parker nor Williams were happy with the results, they simply ran out of time to do anything differently. The cast is uniformly excellent, even the inexperienced actors, with kids like Babyface (Dexter Fletcher) really standing out—it’s no accident that he was one of the few in the film to make a career out of acting. At 93 minutes long, Bugsy Malone doesn't wear out its welcome, but it does end abruptly and somewhat awkwardly—it feels like Parker ran out of ideas and had to just bring things to a close. Still, the final number by Paul Williams is a classic, and it sends the film off on an upbeat note.
Cinematographers Peter Biziou and Michael Seresin shot Bugsy Malone on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. (Seresin was supposed to shoot the entire film, but due to scheduling conficts, Biziou stepped in for the first two weeks of the production before handing things back over to Seresin for the rest of the shoot.) Paramount’s press release described the transfer as being a 4K scan from the original elements, though the packaging for the disc simply says that it’s remastered from the original elements. There’s a fair amount of optical work in the film including dissolves and montage sequences, so while it’s likely that they used the camera negative whenever possible, they would have had to use an interpositive for a significant percentage of the film. Between those optical effects and the use of diffusion filters, some of the imagery is a bit soft, but that’s inherent to the elements. Otherwise, it’s generally quite sharp, with even grain and only a small amount of damage visible in the form of speckling. The contrast range is excellent, with deep black levels. The color balance looks accurate, with natural flesh tones. Bugsy Malone has never been a particularly vibrant film, and this transfer is faithful to its gauzy, hazy period look.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and English and French 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. Bugsy Malone was widely released in optical mono, with some prints offering a 4-channel magnetic mix instead. This 5.1 track is likely a straightforward encoding of that mix, as it’s focused on the front channels with limited surround engagement. But the front soundstage is wide, with decent dynamics and some surprisingly deep bass in the music. The dialogue is clear, though it suffers from occasionally excessive sibilance.
Paramount’s Blu-ray for Bugsy Malone is #23 in their Paramount Presents line. It features a slipcover with a flap which opens out to show the original poster art, as well as Digital Copy code on paper insert. Extras include the following, all in HD:
- Give a Little Love: Paul Williams on Bugsy Malone (6:13)
- Filmmaker Focus: Executive Producer David Puttnam on Bugsy Malone (5:27)
- Trailer (2:11)
- Paper Moon Trailer (3:55)
- Grease Trailer (2:03)
- Black Beauty (1971) Trailer (1:01)
Give a Little Love is a Zoom interview with Williams where he discusses his experiences writing the music for the film. He says that he was attracted to the project after being shown storyboards that Parker had done, and felt it would be a harmless but edgy take on the gangster genre. He still has regrets to this day about using adult singers instead of the children, but he’s proud of the final song, which he feels contains the best lyrics that he ever wrote: “You give a little love / And it all comes back to you / You know you’re gonna be remembered / For the things you say and do.” Filmmaker Focus is also a Zoom interview featuring Puttnam quickly covering his background with Parker, the genesis of the project, making the film, and its reception. He says that they debated about making it a musical, with Parker initially being reluctant to do so, but the involvement of Williams changed all that. He talks about the legacy of the film, pointing out that Parker cannily made the decision to allow schools to perform the music free from royalties, and as a result, 90% of kids in Britain have been in a performance of Bugsy Malone.
Aside from a few trailers, that’s it. While it’s wonderful to finally get Bugsy Malone on Region A Blu-ray, it’s a shame that the disc doesn’t include more in-depth extras. Interested viewers can find an essay about the making of the film on Alan Parker’s website, which is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about the production than what is offered here. But the film still speaks for itself, and Paramount’s Blu-ray showcases it in fine fashion.
- Stephen Bjork
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