Critically acclaimed film director Alan Parker died on 7/31/20 from what was described as a “long illness”. He was 76.
He started his career in the advertising industry during the 1960s as “errand boy”. He worked his way up to copywriting and directing commercials. Those experiences led him to writing his first screenplay, “Melody”, which was directed by Waris Hussein. It was an unusual G-rated “coming of age” movie about two grade schoolers who insist on getting married much to the outrage and confusion of their parents and teachers. A good part of the marketing hook was The Bee Gees songs were used in the soundtrack to help appeal to audiences.
Parker’s first major feature film as a director was the G-rated family musical “Bugsy Malone” in 1976. It starred Scott Baio and Jodie Foster as child mobsters in a spoof of the classic gangster movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It earned good reviews from critics but it didn’t do well with movie goers despite being Foster’s next movie after the success of “Taxi Driver”.
Parker directed the intense prison drama “Midnight Express” based on the autobiography of Billy Hayes. Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay. Hayes was an American college student arrested for trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey in 1970. He was originally sentenced to four years and two months. Turkish authorities later changed his sentence to life in prison. He managed to escape custody in 1975 and fled to Greece then eventually returned home to the USA.
Parker went back to the musicals in 1980 with “Fame”, the dramatic story of a group of teenagers attending a performance arts school in New York. The soundtrack’s title track became a big hit for Irene Cara who starred in the movie. It was spun off into a TV series from 1982 to 1987 starring Debbie Allen. There was a revolving cast of actresses playing the students throughout the series including Janet Jackson, Lori Singer, and Nia Peebles.
In 1982, Parker brought Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album rock opera to life as a musical feature film. Like the album itself, it was written by Roger Waters. Originally it was supposed to be a combination of concert footage from the band’s tour of The Wall, mixed in with animation and live action dramatic scenes. Waters was going to play the lead character but he didn’t do well in the screen tests. The role went to Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldof. Parker and Waters argued often during production with Parker once calling it one of his most miserable experiences as a director. In the end, the movie became one of the greatest rock and roll films of all-time. It continues to air on television and special theater screenings to this day all over the world.
In 1984, Parker helmed the touching war drama “Birdy” starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage. The two play teenage Americans who are hospitalized after barely surviving the Vietnam war. Modine’s character becomes mute from all of the trauma he witnessed and endured in combat. At times he shows physical gestures where he believes that he is a bird. Cage is recovering from multiple injuries but he manages to always visit Modine with kindness and compassion to try to bring him back to reality. Being a big fan of Prog Rock, Parker was able to get Peter Gabriel to do the musical score. The percussions of Gabriel’s song “The Rhythm of the Heat” are a driving theme in the movie.
There was tons of controversy with “Angel Heart” in 1987. It’s a complex psychological horror and modern day film noir starring Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro, and Lisa Bonet, based on the 1978 novel “Fallen Angel”. Parker had to edit down a sex scene and some of the graphic violence to earn an R-rating for theaters because the MPAA was so shocked they were going give it an X-rating. De Niro didn’t get along with Rourke on set and there is still bitter feelings to this day. (Rourke recently accused De Niro of blocking him for a chance to be part of “The Irishman”). Bonet’s role got her heat from Bill Cosby and NBC. She was 19 at the time, but her character in the movie is supposed to be 17. She’s shown in a nude scene and she performs a voodoo ritual. She was still part of the TV sitcom hit “The Cosby Show” and its spin-off “A Different World” at the time. Cosby and the network felt “Angel Heart” was a definite stark contrast to the family friendly TV shows she was on as her “day job”. Bonet ended up getting temporarily fired by Cosby. She was brought back and then fired again in 1991. There is an uncut version of the movie which is still rated X.
“The Commitments” in 1991 was an international success as a film and movie soundtrack. It was based on Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name. The story is about a group of young white people in Ireland who want to form a soul band after being inspired by the music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Al Green, and other African-American soul music artists of the 1960s. The soundtrack did so well that the cast actually toured around the world in concerts during the 1990s for a little while. A new version of The Commitments on stage is set to tour the U.K. this fall depending on the virus pandemic.
It was back to musicals for Parker once again in 1996 with “Evita” starring Madonna. The film was based on the 1976 concept album by Andrew Loyd Webber and Tim Rice about the life and times of the First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón. The plan to make it into a movie had been in creative limbo for a couple of decades with other actresses and directors previously considered. Madonna wrote Parker a letter to convince him to cast her. Like with all of Madonna’s previous films, she was criticized for her acting abilities, but she also on the soundtrack which sold well.
Frank McCourt’s international best selling memoir “Angela’s Ashes” was made into a movie in 1999. It was a box office bomb. Many critics and fans of the thought it never captured the spirit and there are several key changes and omissions from the book. It was a creative drought for Parker.
Parker’s last movie was 2003’s “The Life of David Gayle” starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet. Spacey is a man on “death row” who’s allowed to tell his story to a reporter. It was a critical and box office failure.
Queen Elizabeth II gave Parker a CBE honor in 1995 for his contributions to filmmaking.