Bugsy Malone (1976) – By Jonathon Pernisek

 The wonderful fact about life is how it consistently surprises you, always managing to top itself when it comes to your naïve expectations. Just when you think to yourself, “I can’t imagine a worse premise for a movie,” then along comes a title so inexplicably terrible you start to doubt your entire career as a b-movie critic. Everything you’ve ever watched suddenly gets thrown out the window upon witnessing this latest and greatest atrocity, and suddenly the rules have changed. Folks, I’m not kidding when I say that Bugsy Malone has one of the worst premises ever invented by mankind. Hold on to something, because we’re going to discuss it now.

As you might assume, this movie revolves around the exploits of the morally gray gangster known as Bugsy Malone. What you might not so readily assume, however, is how this is a full-blown musical, complete with tap dancing, vamp numbers, and every other convention of the genre. Now imagine the entire cast of this gangster flick is made up entirely of children, none older than the age of sixteen. Okay, now imagine that every time one of these children opens their mouths to sing, their vocals are dubbed in by an adult performer. Reeling yet? How about the idea of Scott Baio starring in the title role alongside Jodie Foster as a slutty showgirl named Tallulah?

How in the world someone thought this sounded like a good idea on paper is beyond me, and seeing it realized is truly a surreal experience. From start to finish the entire movie feels like an entry on some pedophile’s Top Ten list, and no matter how hard I tried this feeling just could not be ignored. Any mentally stable person will feel wrong as they watch a dozen preteen girls singing and dancing in horrifically tight, flashy outfits, and while Foster is good as Tallulah you’ll cringe every time she comes on to Baio’s Bugsy. It gets even creepier once you notice how half the boys are sporting fake mustaches, a choice someone should have been smacked over because it doesn’t make any sense and makes the actors look like features in a pervert’s period-themed scrapbook.

Director and writer Alan Parker fails miserably when it comes to telling his audience how they should feel about what they’re watching. For the most part the movie is practically played like a straight drama, with only one of the musical numbers being downright goofy (it involves gangsters singing about their “bad guy” lifestyle). Most of the time Parker doesn’t even focus on Bugsy, preferring to key in on a war between the forces of Fat Sam and his nemesis, Dandy Dan. Mind you, this war is not fought with bullets but with “Splurge Guns,” bazookas armed with capsules of pure custard. Fat Sam is worried because his boys only carry outdated cream pies, so he plots various schemes to steal a few of the Splurge Guns and take back the territory stolen by Dan. It’s not interesting at all, trust me.

Then there are the subplots, and boy, are there a number of them in this picture. There’s a janitor who works at Fat Sam’s speakeasy who dreams of becoming a tap dancer, though we never see the kid dance and his dream is never fulfilled. Florrie Dugger plays Blousey Brown, a baseball bat-wielding dame who wants to be a singer and has absolutely no real impact on anything whatsoever. Don’t worry, Dugger is such a bad actress you won’t feel guilty for wanting her to jump off the nearest bridge. And as if these weren’t enough, about two-thirds into the movie we get yet another tangent involving Bugsy’s discovery of a potentially gifted boxer. This subplot even has its own musical number, and yet in the end it isn’t resolved in any way whatsoever. Did someone take forty pages from forty different screenplays and throw them into a blender?

Let’s spend a short paragraph talking about those music numbers, shall we? Paul Williams is the composer and lyricist, and to my astonishment one of his more recent credits is the infinitely charming Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m astonished because in today’s movie Williams shows absolutely no signs of talent, his songs a hopeless mish-mash of ‘70s funk, electronica, and half-hearted stabs at period torch songs. None of it is a pleasure to listen to, especially Bugsy’s theme song. Oh yes, he has a theme song, one starkly reminiscent of Joe Don Baker’s classic turn as Mitchell. You know something’s wrong when you start wanting to watch one of Baker’s movies instead of the one currently spooling in front of you. It didn’t help that the VHS copy I bought has got to be the worst transfer I’ve ever endured, with audio so muffled the volume had to be turned up to max just to barely make out the dialogue.

My head hurts simply thinking about this movie, especially when it comes to the whole idea of the Splurge Guns. We’re led to believe the people shot by these weapons die, since we never see them again after they’re mowed down, and while the ending of the film is nothing short of a Splurge-oriented massacre, no one dies! Nope, instead everyone just starts singing about how they’re friends all of a sudden. No explanation, not even a hint of one, and then the credits start to roll. Holy mother of Pete, who was in charge here? Why are adults singing for children? Why are 60% of these young actors staring into the camera like paranoid infants? The questions just keep coming, and I have no answers, so let me just leave it at this: Bugsy Malone deserves a spot in my sordid collection from here on out simply because it’s such a tremendous failure. Track it down just so you too can know the immense pain of watching it from start to finish.