WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: A turf war erupts in prohibition-era New York when Dandy Dan, his gang armed with new-fangled Splurge guns, moves in on the interests of rival Fat Sam. From the safety of his sarsaparilla-serving speakeasy, Sam calls on chancer Bugsy Malone to help him out, but Bugsy has his own issues: wooing wannabe actress Blousey Brown while avoiding the attentions of Sam’s statuesque squeeze, Tallulah.
Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is a man – okay, a child acting as a man – who minds his own business, which is (amongst other things) looking for fighters in New York. He also has an eye for the ladies, such as aspiring actress Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger) who hustles for a singing job at the lively Grand Slam speakeasy run by Fat Sam (John Cassisi). Sam’s got bigger troubles than singers on his plate, because erudite rival Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) – with the help of the ultra-effective Splurge gun – is wiping out his gang and threatening to take over Sam’s illicit interests.
Sam turns to Bugsy for help and while the latter’s grateful for the money, it brings him back into awkward contact with Sam’s girl Tallulah (Jodie Foster), carrying feelings for the fixer from times past. Despite Bugsy’s resourcefulness, he disappoints Blousey and struggles to find a solution to save Sam from disaster. However, a chance meeting with heavyweight Leroy (Paul Murphy) and the recruitment of a motley crew partially levels the playing field ahead of the final, messy showdown.
Assuming – as I think we have to – that Bugsy Malone is first and foremost a film for children, it should be a near-total non-starter. What familiarity did kids of the 70s, or any time since, have with tales of Prohibition-era gangsters? Furthermore, I can’t be the only person who, as a child, loathed the sight of other kids on the screen. I resented their precocity whether or not they were actually any good, and it has to be said that there are plenty of ropey performances here: not least Dugger (promoted to a starring role at the last minute) and, to be honest, Baio, who is affable but fairly bland.
Those two issues are plenty to be getting on with, but there are others: the film is sometimes repetitive, the plot lurches from scene to scene, and production values point to a movie without the budget to make sure everything was done to the best possible standard. Though I don’t mind it, there is something odd about children having adult singing voices; Noo Yoik accents fade away mid-sentence or completely fail to materialise; and there’s an awful moment in My Name is Talllulah when an extra obscures Foster completely by walking into shot at an inopportune moment.
Which makes it all the sweeter to report that for all of its faults, Bugsy Malone works like a charm. The fact that all the actors are children mitigates against their precocity, and makes for a unique viewing experience (fine, almost unique – bet you’ve never seen Kuwentong Bahay-Bahayan either). The tone of the movie is pitched just right; the children are old enough not to be twee or cutesy (though Dugger has a sweet, doll-like face), but neither are they asked to act like ‘real’ adults – in short, there’s nothing inappropriate in the film. Additionally, specific performances are very engaging: Cassisi is brilliantly pugnacious as Fat Sam, the sadly-departed Lev smartly suave as Dandy Dan. And then there’s Jodie Foster, whose range of expressions – and sincerity of emotion – reveal an experienced young actress operating on a different plane to her co-stars. The fact that she came to the shoot after filming Taxi Driver with Scorsese and De Niro explains a lot. A teeny Dexter Fletcher also makes an impression as Baby Face.
Bugsy Malone also benefits from Paul Williams’ catchy melodies, which I imagine are what linger longest in most people’s memories. Fat Sam’s Grand Slam, Tomorrow, So You Want to be a Boxer and Foster’s song are all great fun, but the song Bad Guys – later reprised and transformed into You Give a Little Love – contains the most energy and verve. Indeed, the riotous fight that forms the film’s climax is brilliantly handled, four or five minutes of song, dance, kids being kids and positive morals that contains more entertainment than many entire movies, especially for younger viewers. Adults are free to watch the movie too, of course, and while they’ll be more aware of the film’s faults, they can also appreciate the work that has gone into gently parodying the gangster genre. The splurge guns, pedal-powered cars and pint-sized period costumes are lovely, whilst the Grand Slam set is a thing of beauty – at least, until the kids wreck it.
Tastes and technology move on, and I’ve no doubt that many a 21st Century child will look at Bugsy Malone and wonder what the hell is going on. However, I’m equally convinced that there’s more going for Alan Parker’s film than nostalgia for watching it as a youngster; in performances such as Foster’s, and with a clutch of energetic, toe-tapping numbers, this is a film that will have fans of all ages for many years to come.