Why You Should Know Alan Parker’s Legacy

Underrated in his day, some of Parker's movies improve with age, and others do not. But he never settled for the expected.
File picture - Sir Alan Parker Died At 76 - © Pierre Brucelle/ABACA. 17599-4. Paris, 6/3/2000. Director Alan Parker promoting the movie Angela's Ashes.(Sipa via AP Images)
Alan Parker
Sipa USA via AP

Alan Parker is not one of the name auteurs you learn about in Film History 101. That’s partly because he wasn’t known for doing one thing. The working-class Londoner made his mark in the 70s with commercials and television before breaking out with period child-gangster musical “Bugsy Malone” (1976), starring Jodie Foster. He died Friday morning at age 76.

True story “Midnight Express” (1978) took viewers on a harrowing descent into Turkish prison hell (starring Brad Davis as Billy Hayes), established Oscar nominee Parker as a taut manipulator of suspense, and won Oscars for screenwriter Oliver Stone and composer Giorgio Moroder. In drama “Birdy” (1984), Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage went on another unpredictable journey, from kids hanging in Philadelphia to soldiers fighting in Vietnam and finally, a grim hospital ward.

Always skilled at using music in his movies, from New York high-school musical “Fame” (1980) to Madonna vehicle “Evita” (1996), Parker became a stylish Hollywood director-for-hire. Not holding up over time is handsome but old-fashioned race-relations drama “Mississippi Burning” (1988), which earned seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor Gene Hackman, and Supporting Actress Frances McDormand.

When things didn’t turn out well with the studios (psycho-noir “Angel Heart,” starring Mickey Rourke, bleak internment story “Come See the Paradise”), Parker would head back to Ireland and England, where he made a triumphant comeback with his best-reviewed and most optimistic movie, “The Commitments” (1991), the first installment in Roddy Doyle’s “Barrytown Trilogy,” led by Irish charmer Colm Meaney and a cast of unknowns. Also in the U.K., he adapted Frank McCourt’s bestseller “Angela’s Ashes” (1999), starring an incandescent Emily Watson.

In short, Parker always took risks. He liked to take audiences where they might not have gone before, around strange, disturbing corners, which often cost him with conventional critics. One of his most underrated achievements rewards repeated viewings: “Shoot the Moon” (1982), written by Bo Goldman, boasted fearless performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney as a struggling husband and wife. Parker never hesitated to go to the dark side.


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